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Rockets-Trail Blazers Preview

By BRETT HUSTON

STATS Editor

(AP) -- The past two games have followed the precise blueprint the Houston Rockets were expecting to roll out when they teamed Dwight Howard and James Harden.

So did their first visit to Portland.

The Rockets handed the Western Conference-best Trail Blazers their most lopsided loss of the season last month at the Moda Center, a result that'll surely be fresh in Portland's mind Thursday night in a rematch of the NBA's two highest-scoring teams.

Houston (15-7) blamed mental lapses and a lack of energy for its back-to-back losses to Utah and Phoenix last week, but there's been no dip in focus over the last two games.

Harden had 34 points, while Howard had 22 and 18 boards in Friday's 105-83 rout of Golden State. Howard then posted his first 20-20 game in a Rockets uniform and Harden (27 points, 10 assists, eight rebounds) narrowly missed a triple-double in Sunday's 98-88 win over Orlando.

Howard attempted 34 free throws in those two wins after a seven-game stretch in which he totaled 39 and averaged just 13.1 points. Harden, meanwhile, missed three games with a sore foot at the beginning of that stretch, but Houston's stars and supporting cast seem to be getting on the same page.

"We're learning how to play around Dwight," assistant coach Kelvin Sampson told the team's official website. "I thought early on we were probably force-feeding him a little too much. Now we're being a little bit more selective and Dwight is doing a good job of passing. ... So we're playing through him (better) and then James – James has just been a lot more efficient."

Harden has been remarkably efficient during the Rockets' three straight wins against the Blazers (18-4). He's totaled 101 points in those games on just 55 field-goal attempts.

Harden scored 33 and Howard 29 as Houston held a 54-28 scoring edge in the paint and 47-30 edge on the boards in a 116-101 victory in Portland on Nov. 5.

"They're very specific in what they do," Portland coach Terry Stotts said of the Rockets after that loss. "They shoot 3s and they get to the paint. Guys like Harden get to the rim, get to the paint. ... That's their style of play and then you throw in transition which is usually paint points, that's part of what they do."

One of the reasons Houston was able to limit the Blazers in the paint was the presence of Omer Asik, but the big man will miss a fourth straight game Thursday with a knee contusion. Guard Jeremy Lin, however, will return after a six-game absence.

The Blazers are 29th in the league in point differential in the paint (minus-9.3), and were outscored 54-36 inside in Saturday's 108-106 loss to Dallas - Portland's only other home defeat besides Houston.

There were no interior issues Monday in Utah. The Blazers held a 44-38 paint edge on the Jazz and got at least 15 points from four of their starting five in a 105-94 victory - led by LaMarcus Aldridge's 24.

"With our offense, I want us to be opportunistic with whatever the game gives us," Stotts said. "If it gives us 3s, we knock them down. If it gives us the paint, that's good too with LaMarcus on the block. One thing we've done well with offensively is we take what the game gives us."

The Rockets have tended to give Aldridge whatever he wants recently. He had 21 points in the first meeting and has averaged 28.0 while taking nearly 22 shots a game in his last five versus Houston.

Portland's Nicolas Batum has played in four of those games, averaging 22.3 points while going 14 of 27 from 3-point range.

Updated December 11, 2013

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