A week ago, home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs didn’t seem possible for the Houston Rockets. A strong road trip, however, has them back on pace to claim it.
The Rockets will try to move closer to that goal when they play host the New Orleans Hornets on Saturday night.
Houston (50-29) went undefeated on its three-game road trip, beating Portland 99-95 in the finale on Wednesday night. Tracy McGrady had 32 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, and Yao Ming added 27 points and 12 rebounds as the Rockets extended their road win streak to a season-high five games.
The recent surge has pulled Houston a game ahead of first-round opponent Utah - which has lost five of its last six - in the race for home-court advantage in the playoff opener. Houston plays two more home games before visiting the Jazz in the regular-season finale.
“The next two games are very important,” Rafer Alston told the team’s official Web site. “It’s not going to be easy, but we have to establish ourselves at home. We can control (our destiny). We just have to take care of business at home.”
The Rockets, though, have concerns as the playoffs approach. They had a 24-point lead late in the third quarter Wednesday, but were outscored 36-21 in the fourth and needed clutch free throws from Yao and Alston in the final minute.
Houston has been outscored in the final 12 minutes in eight of its last 11 games.
“We played an awful, awful fourth quarter, and my greatest fear is that we continue to make the same mistakes and get into a playoff situation and do the same thing,” Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said.
Houston will put its win streak on the line against a New Orleans team fighting to stay alive in the playoff race.
The Hornets (37-42) didn’t help their postseason chances Friday, blowing a 13-point fourth-quarter lead in a 107-105 loss to Denver. The Hornets went more than six minutes in the final period without making a field goal to lose for only the second time in their last seven games.
The loss dropped them to two games behind the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State in the race for the final playoff berth.
“We are just another game out now,” said Chris Paul, who had 18 points and eight assists. “We need some help from some other teams, and for us to go out and win our last three games.”
The Hornets finish the regular season with a three-game road trip, including matchups with Sacramento on Monday and the Clippers in the regular-season finale on Wednesday. New Orleans has won all three of its meetings with the Rockets this season, holding Houston to 40.5 percent shooting from the field
The Hornets outscored the Rockets 62-41 in the second half to overcome a 12-point third-quarter deficit in their 106-94 win March 25. Paul had 28 points with a career-high four 3-pointers in that game, and is averaging 17.3 points and 10.0 assists against the Rockets this year.