Given their absentee list, the Houston Rockets had modest expectations while playing the second game of a back-to-back at New Orleans on Sunday. And, to an extent, they matched them.
Missing their top three scorers -- James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Clint Capela -- the Rockets still managed a lead in the fourth quarter before succumbing to the suddenly resurgent Pelicans 127-112.
Houston will host the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday at Toyota Center with its roster still in flux.
Westbrook should return after his absence Sunday was mandated by rest. Harden (toe) and Capela (heel) remained questionable Monday, but Houston did welcome back Eric Gordon against New Orleans. He scored 20 points over 22 minutes in his first action since mid-November knee surgery.
"I'm really proud of the way they played and how they played and how they attacked," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "It was a lot closer game than the final score (indicated) but this was a learning space for me and the guys that played some significant minutes and played well."
Harden is averaging 38.3 points and 7.5 assists. Westbrook is at 24.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game, while Capela averages 13.9 points and 14.4 rebounds.
With Gordon in the fold, the Rockets are a step closer to resetting their backcourt rotation, one that features ample depth and versatility. Harden, Westbrook and Gordon are the anchors, with Austin Rivers and Ben McLemore providing support as bench gunners. Without Gordon, the Rockets lacked the perimeter shooting and defense that often makes them whole.
"I just want to continue to build from this," Gordon said.
"I feel pretty good. Over the past year and a half, probably a year, I've been playing a little bit off-balance just fighting through a little nagging injury. I don't have to worry about that now."
The Nuggets have been worry-free for most of this month, winning for the ninth time in 10 games Sunday against the Sacramento Kings -- and doing so without Gary Harris and Paul Millsap. Harris missed the game because of shin injury, while Millsap has been on the sideline for the past two games due to a knee injury.
With depth as their ally, the Nuggets plugged Michael Porter Jr. and Jerami Grant into their starting lineup and kept rolling, with that duo totaling 37 points and eight rebounds.
"I was just wanting to blend with the starting group and do what I could on the court just to make their job easier and be a positive part of the team," Porter said of his first career start.
"We've got a really, really good team. There are a lot of really good players that are playing a lot of minutes right now. So you've just got to be thankful when you're in the game and just try to play as hard as you can because you've got dudes that can back you up if you're tripping."
With much of the league focused on the Lakers-Clippers rivalry, Denver has quietly ascended to second in the West and remains a shining example of how to balance egos with a talent glut.
Porter is just one of several players logging limited minutes because of the abundance of talent on hand.
"Sacrifice and selfless, easy things to talk about," Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. "Much harder to live every day."
--Field Level Media
Rockets hoping to be whole as Nuggets visit