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Rockets firing on all cylinders heading into Brooklyn

NEW YORK -- The Houston Rockets are humming along nicely of late, armed with effective chemistry on both sides of the ball.

Yes, James Harden will produce a huge game from time to time like his 60-point triple-double a week ago against the Orlando Magic, but other components are also going well for the Western Conference's second-best team.

The Rockets seek their fifth straight win Tuesday night when they visit the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center.

At 38-13, the Rockets are comfortably in second place in the West and inching closer to Golden State. Houston is six games ahead of the San Antonio Spurs and two behind Golden State, which hosts Oklahoma City Tuesday.

Houston is 11-2 in its last 13 games since Jan. 8. Before they began this run with a 116-107 win at Chicago, the Rockets followed up a 14-game winning streak with seven losses in nine games.

And not all of its run has been achieved with Harden. Harden sat from Jan. 3-15 due to a hamstring injury and since returning he is averaging 26.6 points, 9.2 assists and shooting 43.8 percent.

On Saturday, the Rockets were able to win with minimal contributions by Harden (by his standards) because they dominated the Cleveland Cavaliers in a wire-to-wire 120-88 nationally televised win. Harden finished with 16 points on 5 of 16 shooting while missing 10 of 11 3-point attempts.

Chris Paul added 22 and 11 assists in 27 minutes and was a plus-47. He has reached double digits in 14 straight games and the Rockets are 12-3 when Paul gets at least 20 points and 12-1 when he gets at least 10 assists.

Another sign of progress in the last few weeks is on the defensive side. Although the Rockets are in the middle of the pack by allowing 105.7 points per game, they are allowing 101.8 in the last 13 while posting a 102.5 defensive rating in that stretch.

"It's a team," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni told reporters. "Everybody's bought in. Good guys. The locker room's good. There's ups and downs during the year, but they're sticking together. Things are good.

"It's getting there," Paul said of the team's defense in recent weeks. "It can still get better. But we're progressing."

Even with Paul and Harden healthy, the Rockets still aren't at 100 percent. Trevor Ariza will miss his fourth straight game with a hamstring injury while Eric Gordon is expected to return after appearing for only 10 minutes in the last three games due to lower back stiffness.

Brooklyn's next win will match last season's win total when it lost 62 games. The Nets (19-35) enter Tuesday with six losses in their last seven games and four of those losses are by double-digits.

The Nets never led Sunday, fell behind by 14 after the opening quarter, trailed by 28 in the third quarter and were dealt a 109-94 home loss to the Milwaukee Bucks.

"You have to be ready from the get-go and I'm very disappointed in that," Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson said.

Among the things Atkinson can be upset about is sub-par first quarters. The Nets allowed the Bucks to shoot 54.5 percent (12 of 22) and during the last seven first quarters, Brooklyn is getting outscored by a 208-152 margin while allowing 49.6 percent (77 of 155) shooting.

Another problem area is rebounding, especially with leading rebounder Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (6.5 per game) sidelined with a groin injury. Hollis-Jefferson missed his fifth straight game Sunday when the Nets were outrebounded 54-36 after losing the rebounding battle 56-38 in a three-point loss to the Los Angeles Lakers Friday.

"We've got to rebound the ball. We've really struggled, and it's hurt us in the last couple games," Atkinson said.

During Hollis-Jefferson's absence, the Nets are getting outrebounded, 239-203. Brooklyn is 2-6 in games Hollis-Jefferson does not play in and the third-year forward will sit again Tuesday.

"Rebounding is a collective thing. It's a team effort, and it's part of that focus and compete level for sure," Brooklyn guard Spencer Dinwiddie said. "We have to play better team defense, we have to finish our team defense with rebounds, and do a better job collectively and individually."

The Rockets are looking to sweep the season series for the eighth time in the last 12 seasons. Harden scored 37 in a 117-103 home win on Nov. 27 and posted a triple-double (22 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists) Jan. 15, 2016 in Brooklyn when the Rockets hit 21 3-pointers en route to a 137-112 win.

Updated February 6, 2018

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