ASSOCIATED PRESS — The Houston Rockets have had the Golden State Warriors’ number this season. However, when the teams meet on Saturday, the Rockets will have to play without the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player.
Houston guard James Harden is out due a cervical neck strain. Harden was bothered by soreness Thursday during the Rockets’ 111-106 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. He was seen receiving treatment to the neck and right shoulder during the contest.
The Rockets have used different means to beat the two-time defending champs in their first two head-to-heads since Golden State prevailed in a seven-game conference finals last May.
Houston held a Stephen Curry-less Warriors team to 86 points — Golden State’s lowest output of the season — and just 42 percent shooting in a 107-86 home win in November.
The Rockets then turned Harden loose in the January rematch at Golden State, watching him pour in 44 points — including a game-winning 3-pointer — in a 135-134 overtime thriller.
More than a month later, that game still weighs heavily on the mind of Curry, who countered Harden with 35 points of his own that night.
“They just made one more shot,” he noted to reporters after the Warriors Thursday win over the Sacramento Kings. “We understand how talented they are, how well James has been playing. It’s going to be a dogfight … a defensive test for us.”
At the time of Curry’s statement, the extent of Harden’s injury had not been made public. The NBA’s leading scorer at 36.5 points per game, Harden was bothered by a left shoulder strain prior to the All-Star break but didn’t miss any contests. He has played in 55 of Houston’s 58 games as he missed three games early in the season due to a hamstring injury.
In the overtime win at Oakland, Harden complemented his 44 points with 10 rebounds and 15 assists for a triple-double.
While there was no triple-double against the Lakers, Harden did extend his streak of games with 30 or more points to 32.
The Rockets lost their second in a row and fell to 33-25, a full 12 games below where they stood at this point last season. It’s gotten some analysts grumbling about the club’s style of play and reliance on Harden.
Houston coach Mike D’Antoni labeled such talk “absurd” before the Thursday game.
“I don’t know if they watched last year,” he said of the naysayers. “Nobody else can do what he does. … If you’re a ball-stopper, usually you’re inefficient. He’s very efficient. So when the ball stops, it’s a good thing.”
The Rockets earned the home-court advantage over Golden State in last year’s playoffs by finishing seven games ahead of the Warriors during the regular season.
That almost surely won’t be the case should they meet again this postseason. The Warriors (42-16), with the best record in the West, have a nine-game advantage over Houston, currently in the No. 5 seed.
Golden State won for the 17th time in its past 19 games by surviving a late rally from the Kings on Thursday in a 125-123 home decision. Curry finished with 36 points, making 10 of his 16 3-point attempts.
Harden (276) and Curry (246) enter the game ranked first and second, respectively, in the NBA in 3-pointers made.
Harden also led the league last season with what was then a career-best 265.
Curry got the better of his rival in 3-pointers in last year’s playoff showdown, however, making 27 of 75 (36 percent) while Harden was harassed into 19 of 78 (24.4 percent).
Curry saved his best for last in the series, going 7 of 15 on 3-point tries in a 27-point effort in Golden State’s 101-92 win at Houston in Game 7. Harden went just 2-for-13 from long range on his 32-point night.