By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — It doesn’t look like the Celtics will avoid “The Beard” in Houston on Thursday night.

James Harden, initially listed as questionable with a left calf contusion, is expected to play against Boston, according to ESPN’s Tim MacMahon.

That’s great news for basketball fans, as Harden is on an absolute offensive tear as of late. Now one of the best defenses in the league will try to slow him down on National TV, and Marcus Smart can try to rent out some space in his head (or beard, whatever is available) once again.

Boston currently touts the third-ranked defense in the NBA, holding opponents to 103.4 points per 100 possessions. The Rockets are a bit undermanned with a hamstring stain sidelining Chris Paul for a third straight game, but Harden has been carrying the offensive load (and then some) over the last two weeks. The guard is averaging a ridiculous 38.5 points, six rebounds and 8.5 assists in Houston’s last eight games. His offensive explosion has the Rockets surging, winning seven of those contests.

During that stretch, Harden has a 50-point game against the Lakers and two different 40-point outbursts, including one of his best all-around games on Tuesday. Harden erupted for 41 points, seven assists and six rebounds in Houston’s thrilling 113-109 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Christmas Day, hitting 16 of his 35 attempts from the floor (going 5-of-13 from three-point land).

The Celtics don’t see Harden too often, but he usually puts up big numbers against their stingy defense. He averaged 30 points and 10 assists in their two clashes last season, and has averaged 39.9 points in their last seven meetings.

The caveat is the Celtics make him work for those points. Smart is one of the few players who can really throw him off his game, getting under his skin from start to finish. It’s a battle of notorious floppers; Harden on offense and Smart on defense.

Smart won that battle in Boston last season, when the pesky guard drew a pair of offensive fouls on Harden in the closing seconds to spark an incredible Celtics comeback victory. With Smart pestering for him much of that December night, Harden was just 7-of-27 from the floor, scoring 15 of his 34 points at the free throw line.

Houston got revenge a few months later on their home floor by outlasting the C’s 123-120, their 15th straight victory at the time. Slowing Harden and the Rockets down at the Toyota Center is not an easy task, and teams haven’t been able to do it lately. Houston has won seven straight and 10 of their last 11 at home. They’ve claimed six of their last seven meetings against the Celtics in Space City.

Both teams will be looking to prove something Thursday night, as neither have really lived up to their pre-season hype. The Celtics are just 20-13 on the season, in the middle of the pack in the East. The Rockets were even more disappointing to start the year, but their recent surge has them at 18-15 and the seventh-seed in the West. Both have shown signs that they’re rounding into shape as of late, which should mean another entertaining clash on Thursday night.

Both teams should be much better. Thursday night will be a great test for each of them to prove just that.


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