Hornets-Rockets Preview

The Houston Rockets have won consecutive games without James Harden in top form, in part because Dwight Howard's offensive production has started to come around.

The center will try to again respond to rumors of his unhappiness playing second fiddle to Harden with a third straight strong performance Monday night against the visiting Charlotte Hornets, who haven't beaten the Rockets in over five years.

In Saturday's 107-97 home win over the Los Angeles Clippers, Harden was 4 of 13 for 18 points while Howard went 8 of 11 with 22 points and 14 rebounds. Harden is 11 of 37 in the last two games, and Howard has averaged 19.0 points and 14.5 rebounds in 26.0 minutes as he tries to focus on what's happening on the court.

"That's one thing we've been talking about in the locker room is not allowing the noise, the distractions to really affect who we are and what we're trying to accomplish as a team," said Howard, whose 13.1 scoring average and 8.5 shots per game are his lowest since his rookie season. "That's what we have to do. There's always going to be talk, there's always going to be noise but we have to be able to keep that noise out and only hear the voices of each other."

The Rockets (14-14) are now in position to peek out over .500 for the first time since being 4-3. It's not exactly where the Western Conference finalists expected to be with seven games remaining before the calendar flips, but they're happy with the latest efforts.

Houston has limited its last two opponents to 41.2 percent and outrebounded them 54.5-42.0 after allowing 51.0 percent and losing the rebounding battle 49.5-31.0 in its two preceding losses.

"First glance, I think we played well. It's been a while since we played well," interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. "It's been even longer since we've strung a few games in a row where we've played well. But our defense to start the game was superb. Our activity, our energy - and it was everybody."

Houston has won the last nine meetings by an average of 14.5 points while limiting the Hornets to 38.7 percent shooting.

Charlotte (15-11) was becoming known for the kind of play Bickerstaff spoke of on a four-game winning streak but has since gone 1-3 with some defensive letdowns. The Hornets fell 109-101 in Washington on Saturday, allowing the Wizards to shoot 50.6 percent. They also turned the ball over 18 times and are averaging 16.0 in the last three games, which is out of character for a team that averages an NBA-low 12.8.

"It's a combination of us not being as solid, strong with the ball as we needed to and they're playing against a team that's good at doing that," coach Steve Clifford said.

Kemba Walker had 18 points, which is right at his season average, but it took 18 shots and he's been limited to 36.2 percent in the last four games. He was held to 8.0 points on 28.6 percent in the two losses to Houston last season.

The guard is adjusting to playing more with Jeremy Lin - who played 36 minutes against Washington and is averaging 17.6 points in the last five games - and Clifford is intrigued by playing the two along with Nicolas Batum.

"What it does is it gives you three pick-and-roll players, so I think you saw last night we had really good stretched of offense with those guys," Clifford said. "They can spread the defense out, which creates space for each other."

Charlotte's Al Jefferson is serving the fourth game of a five-game suspension for violating the league's drug policy.

Houston's Ty Lawson will complete his two-game suspension for a January drunken-driving case in Colorado.

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