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Column: Why James Harden’s Rockets, the NBA’s best at this time last year, are in a ‘great spot’ despite having to fight for it

Houston Rockets center Clint Capela (15) Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) and Houston Rockets
Rockets guard James Harden (13) carried the team during injuries to center Clint Capela (15) and point guard Chris Paul.
(Tyler Kaufman / Associated Press)

The Houston Rockets had a bad night last week, and for the players and coaches who were with the team a year ago, they know just what a bad night looks like.

Houston had a bad one in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals last year, a game in which they missed an inconceivable 27 consecutive three-point shots in a home loss to the Golden State Warriors. By those standards, Tuesday’s loss in Milwaukee was nothing to sweat.

In a showdown with the Bucks, the team with the NBA’s best record that almost surely will have homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs, the Rockets took 52 three-pointers and made only 16. Just one team in history has attempted that many threes and made fewer.

But after the Rockets pulled themselves out from underneath the pile of bricks, James Harden, their star guard, offered the necessary perspective — the kind they’re hoping can get them back to where they were last spring when they came within one win of making the NBA Finals.

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The Rockets bounced back to trounce the Denver Nuggets by 27 points on Thursday. Heading into the weekend, Houston was vying with Portland for the No. 3 playoff spot in the West, with Utah and the Clippers also within striking distance.

“We’re in a great spot,” Harden said after Tuesday’s loss to the Bucks. “We’re fighting for a top seed in the West, which is … we all know how tough that is.”

It’s even tougher after you spot the conference a 26-game head start.

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The Rockets’ early season follies — Houston was in 14th place in the standings on Dec. 12 after a 12-14 start — didn’t sink their season thanks to Harden’s heroics and an almost entirely new cast of bench players that joined the team during the season.

“We’re in a good spot,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni told The Times before the game with the Bucks. “We just went through a lot. We had different teams, different personalities. With all the injuries, a lot of the guys that are here right now started off not here. Whether these guys are tested and ready to go, we’ll see. But we do feel like we’re in a pretty good spot.

“But, yeah, it was bumpy.”

Beginning Dec. 13 with a 50-point game in a win over the Lakers, Harden scored at least 30 in 32 consecutive games, something that no one outside of Wilt Chamberlain has done. During that span, Harden averaged more than 40 points, helping Houston dig out of the early season hole while point guard Chris Paul and center Clint Capela were sidelined.

Paul missed a month because of a hamstring injury and Capela was sidelined for a month after injuring a thumb. Without Paul, the team went 12-5. Without Capela, the Rockets went 9-6.

“I don’t know,” Harden said when asked how his team weathered those injuries. “That’s a good question.”

It was a bit of false modesty considering Harden was wearing a sweatshirt with a most-valuable-player campaign slogan crafted by Adidas.

Harden’s offensive mastery — if he finishes the season averaging 36 or more points, he’ll be just the fourth player to do it and the first since Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 in 1986-87 — is the most obvious reason why the Rockets have recovered from the adversity. But it’s not the only one.

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The Rockets raided the buyout market to land guard Austin Rivers and forward Kenneth Faried at midseason. Danuel House Jr. rejoined the team in mid-March after a contractual standoff forced him to the G League.

“We’ve just been trying to figure it out,” Paul said of the second unit.

They’ve had to do it during a stretch when every game matters and has playoff implications, a scenario the Rockets weren’t in a season ago when they locked up the NBA’s best record by the end of March.

“I don’t know if we’re better or worse. But I do know, one thing that’s different is as we lead up to the playoffs, we’re going to play meaningful games to get a good seed,” D’Antoni told The Times. “Last year, we were locked on. We will be tested some. We’ve got some hard games on the road. It’s one of the first times this year we’ll have our rotation down. …

“I’ll learn some things about us.”

That good spot the Rockets are in? Even a bad night here or there can’t knock them out of it.

dan.woike@latimes.com

Twitter: @DanWoikeSports

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