HOUSTON -- In what was a playful exchange with the media following a loss to the Utah Jazz on Wednesday, Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni stubbornly refused to envision a scenario where Chris Paul was unavailable, having just completed the second game without the suspended guard.
After two losses with Paul sidelined, the Rockets (1-3) will welcome him back on Friday when they host the Los Angeles Clippers at Toyota Center. But instead of inching toward optimal health, something that has proven elusive for Houston in the early stages of this season, the Rockets will simply exchange one All-Star for another, with Paul replacing reigning NBA Most Valuable Player James Harden in the lineup. Harden suffered a left hamstring injury against the Jazz and is unavailable to start alongside Paul in the Rockets' second meeting with the Clippers.
Harden will miss the final two games on the Rockets' current three-game homestand.
Undermined by their defense during the opening week, the Rockets showcased slight improvement on that end against the Jazz only to crumble offensively without Paul. Harden shouldered a heavy load, pairing 29 points with seven assists while also committing seven turnovers. The Rockets shot a miserable 40.2 percent from the field, including missing 29 of 40 3-point attempts. Eric Gordon, starting in place of Paul, missed his first 11 3s and went 1 of 12.
Harden, forward James Ennis (right hamstring strain), and center Nene (right calf strain) were all evaluated by team doctors on Thursday. The Rockets' shortened bench will remain depleted.
"Obviously, it changes a lot of things and we deal with it," Paul said. "I'm sure it's a different game with me not playing. Obviously, we'd love to have the team full strength but right now we're dealing with the injury bug and you just get past it as a group and pile up some wins.
"We've had different injuries and things going on. I think for us now is to try to weather the storm. I'd rather this now than April or something like that. We'll just try to figure it out."
The Clippers (2-2), framed as a roster devoid of stars yet laden with depth, have held firm thanks to defense. Despite boasting the toughest strength of schedule in the NBA, the Clippers were on Thursday ranked eighth in defensive efficiency at 104.1 points per 100 possessions.
"Overall defensively I love this team," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "It's going to keep us in a lot of games. We've got to be smarter on offense, we really do."
Rivers has attempted to bolster that offensive production by playing forwards Tobias Harris and Danilo Gallinari as the bigs down the stretch of games. Harris (23.5 points per game) and Gallinari (21.5) pace the Clippers in scoring and rebounding, with Harris corralling a team-high 8.5 boards per game while Gallinari ranks second at 7.0.
"I like it a lot," Rivers said of the personnel grouping following a road loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday. "It takes their big out of the paint. The first two times we did it, we got a layup and a 3. But we just didn't take advantage of it. I thought we failed to recognize what we were trying to do, and at the end of the day I thought that hurt us."