Time to fear ‘The Beard’ again

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Rockets star James Harden threw down a viciously hostile dunk on Lakers’ 7-footer JaVale McGee and then drained a 3-pointer while being fouled by Josh Hart in last Thursday’s nationally televised spotlight game.

He screamed “I’m back” and snarled, flexing with intensity. Harden finished with 50 points in dominating the Lakers, scoring 14 points over the final four minutes of a 126-111 win.

In a league filled with elite showmen, the reigning MVP has climbed right up there with LeBron James and Warriors stars Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry as guys you drop everything to watch. Harden remains polarizing due to his inconsistent defense and penchant for drawing fouls and slowing games to a crawl, but he’s been remarkable over the past few weeks and declared himself back to normal despite the fact he hasn’t missed a game since Nov. 2.

Clearly, he’s feeling himself.

Houston is the right answer when you’re asked to identify this season’s most disappointing team given its slow start, but Harden has strapped the Rockets to his back entering a key December stretch where everyone is supposed to be on their game. Christmas Day is unofficially the start of the regular season.

Harden is clearly present and accounted for. “The Beard” has averaged 38.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 7.6 assists over his previous five games entering Wednesday’s clash with the Wizards and will have his team favored in every game between now and a Dec. 27 home date with the Boston Celtics.

The Rockets’ four-game winning streak has them back above .500 for the first time in a month and in the mix atop a Southwest Division where all five members are all closely stacked together.

As long as Harden stays healthy and productive, expect the Rockets to enter their high-profile holiday home game against the Thunder as a favorite by at least a bucket. They’re clearly well on their way to repairing their season if they can hold serve against Washington and survive a visit to Miami for the second night of a back-to-back on Thursday.

Spurs at Rockets (Saturday): The game we like most for the coming week is Houston’s home game Saturday against the Spurs, which marks the third encounter between the in-state rivals. After shooting 7-for-27 in a Nov. 10 home loss in San Antonio, Harden became more of a distributor in helping get teammates Chris Paul and Clint Capela off in a 136-105 rout.

Saturday night’s game will be the Spurs’ first visit to Toyota Center this season and it’s worth knowing that they tasted a pair of double-digit defeats in coming up empty on last season’s trips. Expect to lay roughly eight points and ride Harden’s heat wave to another lopsided victory over San Antonio. Without a true two-way talent to make Harden work at both ends, the Spurs are at a disadvantage against the Rockets in their meetings going forward, even with DeMar DeRozan doing his best to pick up the slack. ROCKETS

Raptors at 76ers (Saturday): Toronto continues to own the NBA’s best record despite losing consecutive games for only the second time this season through road setbacks in Denver and Portland. Look for them to get back on track at home this week before marching into Philadelphia to win a road statement game on Saturday night. Back Toronto outright over the 76ers in a game where it should be getting points. ­RAPTORS 

Last week: 2-1

Season: 12-7

About the Author

Tony Mejia

Tony Mejia has been a national sportswriter for nearly two decades and has covered NBA and college basketball as a columnist, analyst, handicapper, and bracketologist for CBS Sports, Pro Basketball News, and numerous other sites.

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