Yao tries to lead the Rockets to a season-high sixth straight victory when they visit the New Orleans Hornets on Sunday in a Southwest Division matchup at Oklahoma City.
Houston (44-25) has won eight of 10 games since Yao’s return from a broken bone below his right knee. The team’s success with its All-Star center back in the lineup has moved the Rockets into a tight battle with the struggling Utah Jazz for the fourth-best record in the Western Conference.
Though Utah is likely to win the Northwest Division and will be a higher seed, Houston would have the home-court edge in a first-round series with the Jazz by finishing with a better record.
Following a 27-point performance in the Rockets’ 91-85 win over Detroit on Thursday, Yao is averaging 24.0 points and 9.8 rebounds while shooting 51.8 percent from the field during the current win streak.
It’s the second time this season Houston has won five in a row. The Rockets haven’t had a longer win streak since closing the 2004-05 season with seven straight victories.
Since rejoining the team, Yao is averaging 24.0 points on 53.5 percent shooting in the Rockets’ eight wins, and 13.0 points on 25 percent shooting in their two losses.
“He needs to be a killer if we’re going to do anything,” coach Jeff Van Gundy said. “We’ve got to be able to go to him late. He’s got to be able to get good, clean looks. He needs to develop a finishing mentality.”
The Rockets’ lack of that mentality was on display Thursday, when they almost blew a 19-point fourth-quarter lead. Houston was outscored 29-18 in the fourth as the Pistons cut the lead to four in the game’s final three minutes. The Rockets finally secured the win when Yao blocked a layup with 22 seconds left.
“That lack of a finishing mentality, if we can’t correct it within the next 27 days, it will come back to bite us at the most inopportune time,” Van Gundy said.
While Houston is doing some fine-tuning for the playoffs, New Orleans (31-38) is fighting to get there.
The Hornets have won three of five since a season-high six-game losing streak put their postseason hopes in jeopardy. They have fallen to 10th place in the West, but are still very much alive for the eighth and final playoff spot.
Those postseason hopes, however, took a hit Friday, when the Hornets fell to the Los Angeles Lakers 111-105. Chris Paul had 28 points and 12 assists, and Tyson Chandler added a season-high 22 points and 22 rebounds.
It was the third straight double-double for Chandler and he grabbed at least 10 rebounds for the 27th time in 28 games. He went 9-of-13 from the field and Paul was 9-for-15, but the rest of the Hornets shot 31.3 percent.
“We just didn’t have enough guys make shots tonight. That’s the bottom line,” said coach Byron Scott, whose Hornets shot a combined 56.2 percent in winning their previous two games.
What may be more important to New Orleans’ run at the eighth spot is to start playing the kind of defense that helped it win 16 of 24 games before this month.
The Hornets have allowed eight of their last 14 opponents to shoot 50 percent or better from the field. Only six opponents reached that mark in the Hornets’ first 55 games of the season.
“We got lost at times and were kind of watching. Then, when we got broken down, they either got a lay up or a dunk,” Scott said after his team let the Lakers shoot 50 percent. “It’s just one of those games where we have to continue to learn from and get better.”
The Hornets look to bounce back against a Houston team it has beaten six times in the last seven meetings, including twice this season. New Orleans won 87-74 when these teams last met Feb. 3.