Houston continues to juggle its way to wins

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Houston Rockets are down two healthy big men and their main one, center Dwight Howard, is still finding his way offensively while coming off swelling in his knee.

So what is a team to do?

Turn to James Harden & Co.

On a sleepy day in the nation's capital, Harden scored a team-high 24 points, yet he wasn't totally needed for a full 48 minutes in the Rockets' 99-91 victory over the Washington Wizards on Sunday.

Surprisingly, the biggest play Harden made was on defense, when he blocked a Bradley Beal jumper with 25.2 seconds remaining as the Wizards tried to turn the contest into a one-possession game.

“I was surprised he got up there,” Howard said of Harden's block. “He’s not usually known for blocking shots. That’s what MVPs do.”

With Howard appearing in his third game since returning from a right knee injury, he received plenty of help from his MVP-caliber teammate. His coach, Kevin McHale, also made the necessary, smart adjustments to maintain the lead.

Josh Smith, moving into the starting lineup with Donatas Motiejunas (back pain) out, produced 14 points and 10 rebounds.

Corey Brewer provided a boost off the bench with his long arms on defense and his speed on the offensive end. When he’s going downhill he’s a difficult cover and once again he proved it Sunday with 15 points, five rebounds (four offensive) in 22 minutes.

Backup center Joey Dorsey got in on the action Sunday, coming off the bench with seven points, eight rebounds and three steals, and provided a good physical presence against Nene in the post.

Trevor Ariza was a quiet but deadly weapon on offense, with 13 points, eight rebounds and two steals.

“We are a very deep team and we can play a number of ways and we can win a number of ways,” Ariza said. “I think we put together a team that is very versatile and can get it done in a number of ways. We brought Josh [Smith] who is very versatile, who does all the big things you need and the internal things.

"Dwight [Howard] is great on the boards, James [Harden] can score the ball. We have a lot of players not to mention Corey [Brewer], who is unbelievable at causing havoc and getting out in transition.”

One of the smart moves McHale employed was using rookie guard Nick Johnson along with Pablo Prigioni in the backcourt during a first-half stretch, allowing the Rockets to build a 59-46 halftime lead. McHale went back to the duo in the fourth quarter after the Wizards got to within four with 10:09 to play.

Prigioni quickly nailed a 3-pointer, pushing the lead to 82-75. Seconds later he kicked it to Brewer, who hit a 3 of his own to push the advantage back to 10, forcing the Wizards to call timeout.

Johnson covered the talented John Wall, drawing a charge on him late in the fourth quarter and, along with Prigioni, placed pressure on the Wizards' backcourt, forcing Washington to chew valuable time off the clock during its late rally. Wall went 0-for-3 from the field in the final 12 minutes.

“Just try to go in there and play a little defense and give out some energy,” Johnson said. “I think that second group did good today coming out in the second quarter. We struggled a little bit there in the fourth, but we picked it back up and kind of came out with some energy.”

McHale is going to need Prigioni and Johnson, and guard Jason Terry to play heavy minutes with starting point guard Patrick Beverley (wrist) potentially out for the season.

With the Rockets headed to Toronto on Monday for the second half of a back-to-back, McHale will be forced to go small against the Raptors, as Howard has already been ruled out.

“We got two bigs and I probably have to play the 4,” Harden quipped.

The Rockets' victory gives them 50 on the season, and McHale is focused on what lineup can give his team the best chance at No. 51.

“It’s nice to win the games," McHale said. "But it would be really nice to get healthy, that’s our biggest thing."