It appears rookie shooting guard James Harden will return for the Thunder tonight when they host the Houston Rockets in the Ford Center.
Sidelined the past five games by a strained right hamstring, Harden participated in the team’s shootaround Wednesday morning. Asked if the No. 3 overall pick from last year’s draft will play tonight, coach Scott Brooks joked, then indicated Harden will play.
“We had a fun little slam dunk contest and Harden won. It was amazing. He did a 360 (dunk) behind the back,” Brooks said tongue in cheek. “He is available tonight.”
Harden is the Thunder’s fourth leading scorer (9.9) and leads the nine rotation players in 3-point field goal percentage (37.7). Oklahoma City was 2-3 in the five games Harden missed after suffering the injury two weeks ago against New Orleans.
Houston needs a win to keep its fading playoff hopes alive. With a win the Thunder would move seven games ahead of the Rockets with only a dozen left to play, all but assuring they would finish ahead of Houston.
“They’re all huge at this time of the year,” said Thunder forward Nick Collison. “Houston is fighting like we are to get in the playoffs. It’s a huge game. We need to play better, defend better. We could really use a win.”
Houston is 3-0 against the Thunder this season but the two teams haven’t played in three months. The Rockets acquired Kevin Martin and Jared Jeffries in deadline deals in mid-February but traded away Carl Landry, who has given OKC problems.
Rockets guard Aaron Brooks is viewed as the leading candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player. He has increased his average from 12.2 to 19.9.
“He’s as offensive minded as you’ll see from a point guard,” Brooks said. “It seems he can have a bad three and a half quarters and come back the last five or six minutes and get 13 points like he did the other night in New York.
“He’s a gamer. He’s tough to guard. He’s quick. He has a 3-point shot and for a little guy can finish around the rim.”
Houston will be without veteran shooting forward Shane Battier, who will be sidelined 10 days to two weeks with a sprained knee but Martin averaged 24.