March 13, 2018, 6:00 am

Harden returns to keep Spurs sliding

James Harden didn't miss a beat aft a one-game lack, scoring 28 points in three quarters to send the Spurs out of the Western Conference's top eight for now.

Harden returns to keep Spurs sliding

HOUSTON -- With 15 games remaining, the Houston Rockets' capital goal for the daily time period is well inside reach. The contiguous wages mightiness not be all that appealing, however.

The Western Conference's top seed is Houston's to lose at this point. The Rockets (53-14) bumped its lead over the Golden State Warriors to two games by cruising to a 109-93 win Monday nighttime over the struggling, undermanned San Antonio Spurs. The Rockets also own the tiebreaker over the Warriors, so Houston essentially has a three-game shock absorber in the fighting to unafraid home-court vantage for the West finals.

The best evidence in the NBA mightiness earn the Rockets a first-round date with a significantly upgraded interpretation of the Spurs, whose struggles without their superstar little guardant Kawhi Leonard have put their playoff hopes in earnest jeopardy. San Antonio could be a heck of an beginning barrier if Leonard can tax return to All-NBA form aft a lengthy lack due to his cryptic quadriceps femoris complaint and help change the Spurs back to their two-decade norm of excellence.

"It doesn't substance where you are -- you're active to get a good team," Rockets manager Mike D'Antoni said earlier the blowout. "So, whatever."

It's understandable that a potential playoff series with Gregg Popovich's Spurs isn't a favorite subject of discussion for D'Antoni. Those manageres have met five times in the posttime period, with D'Antoni's teams being eliminated each time, including the Spurs knocking out the Rockets in six games during last time period's West semifinals despite Leonard's lack in the sixth and deciding game of the series.

The Phoenix Suns, Los Angeles Lakers and Rockets teams with D'Antoni on the sideline had a combined 6-20 evidence in playoff games against the Spurs. Then again, with all due respect to the Steve Nash-run Suns, none of those teams were nearly as dominant as these Rockets, who have won 19 of the past 20 games and are a ridiculous 35-2 when James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela all play.

And these Spurs -- even with LaMarcus Aldridge (sore knee) and Manu Ginobili (rest), who both sat out against the Rockets -- look nothing like the perennial contenders who have made the playoffs each of the previous 20 time periods, the third-longest posttime period streak in NBA history. In fact, the Spurs find themselves on the outside looking in at the playoff picture this late in the time period for the first time since Tim Duncan was drafted in 1997, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

At 37-30, the Spurs are even with the Utah Jazz and Denver Nuggets for eighth in the West standings but don't own tiebreakers over either team.

Not that Pop plans to mention that to the Spurs, who could have Leonard back in the lineup as soon as Thursday.

"Not at any time in any year did we mention, 'This is where we are in the playoffs' or 'This is where we want to be,'" Popovich said pregame. "We just don't do that. ... You don't think they know where we're at? Do you think they're idiots? C'mon."

The Spurs find themselves in this foreign territory because they've been frankly terrible for the past six weeks. The Spurs are 3-11 since the start of February, giving them fewer wins than every NBA team except for the Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, Suns and Memphis Grizzlies.

It's a lot to ask Leonard, who has been limited to nine games this time period due to right quadriceps femoris tendinopathy and a recovery timetable that has frustrated the Spurs, to come to the rescue. But a former Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year with a pair of top-five MVP finishes is a pretty rare species. And certainly not one even the NBA's best team would want to see to start the playoffs.

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