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Rockets press on without Paul, face Raptors next

HOUSTON -- At some point in the near future, the Houston Rockets will welcome back All-NBA guard Chris Paul, a reality that should inspire a measure of foreboding throughout the rest of the NBA.

The Rockets (11-3), who host the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday night at Toyota Center, have forged an impressive six-game winning streak and the best record in the Western Conference with Paul having logged roughly one half of effective, healthy play.

Paul is inching toward a return from a left knee injury that has sidelined him for four weeks, and while it is absurd to suggest that the Rockets don't need him, they have thrived of late without Paul.

During their winning streak, the Rockets rank first in the league in offensive rating (117.7) and rebound percentage (54.7), second to the Golden State Warriors in net rating (18.1) and fourth in defensive rating (99.6).

They are averaging 120.2 points while making (17.6) and attempting (46) more 3-pointers per game than any team in the league.

Facing the second half of a back-to-back in Indianapolis on Sunday night, the Rockets posted their second consecutive wire-to-wire victory in drubbing the Pacers 118-95, a win described as a "professional victory."

"We've ironed some things out and we've got guys in the right positions," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "James (Harden) is playing phenomenally, but he always has. And we've got guys now that come in ... and we shut some people down. The defense is really good. It can get better."

Harden, who stood to benefit the most from the addition of Paul, has elevated his level of play during the streak, averaging 35.8 points and 11.5 assists while shooting 44.7 percent on 3s.

"I just try to be aggressive. You be aggressive and good things happen, whether it's for you or whether it's for your teammates," Harden said. "I really don't predetermine anything. I just go into every single game with the mindset of being aggressive."

Unlike the Rockets, the Raptors (7-5) will enter Tuesday relatively rested, with their 95-94 loss in Boston on Sunday representing their lone game during a four-day stretch.

Toronto will log its first back-to-back this week, traveling from Houston to New Orleans to face the Pelicans on Wednesday. Before the loss to the Celtics, the Raptors played four games in nine days.

That forgiving stretch has enabled Raptors coach Dwane Casey to tinker with his rotations, particularly late in games when stakes are highest.

Against Boston, Casey had rookie forward OG Anunoby and second-year guard Fred VanVleet on the floor down the stretch, relying on their individual defense to help stifle the red-hot Celtics at critical junctures in the fourth.

Anunoby, whose top five games in minutes played have all come on the road, continues to parlay his combination of strength, athleticism and versatility into defensive promise. VanVleet is undersized but strong-willed, and he teams with Anunoby to provide a level of tenacity that serves as a significant benefit when Toronto needs its stalwarts to focus on late-game scoring.

"You've seen it already," Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan said. "We're 12 games in and a lot of the young guys have been in a lot of big games, on the road especially. It says a lot, the confidence they have within themselves, the coaching staff has within them."

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