It took seven weeks without a loss for the Houston Rockets to climb from 10th place in the Western Conference standings to sole possession of first.
It’s taken less than a week for them to fall halfway back down the ladder.
Hoping to get back on track and improve their playoff position, the Rockets look to avoid their fourth loss in five games as they host the Sacramento Kings on Monday.
Houston (47-23) put together the second-longest win streak in NBA history by winning 22 consecutive games from Jan. 29-March 16. After starting the run with the 10th-best record in the loaded West, the Rockets passed the Los Angeles Lakers for first with a 104-92 win over them last Sunday.
Since that game, however, the Rockets have dropped three of four games to fall into a fifth-place tie with San Antonio. They gave up 38 points in the first quarter and trailed by 17 at halftime of their 122-113 road loss against streaking Phoenix on Saturday night.
“It’s been four tough games,” said Rockets coach Rick Adelman, whose team also lost to league-best Boston and Southwest Division-leading New Orleans this week. “That’s what we talked about at halftime, that’s not who we are in the first half.”
Despite their remarkable run, the Rockets will likely need a strong finish to guarantee a playoff berth. They’re only four games ahead of Denver—the West’s ninth-place team.
Taking advantage of consecutive home games against two of the West’s five clubs with losing records could help Houston’s playoff chances. Following this game against the Kings (31-38), the Rockets host Minnesota on Wednesday before opening a five-game road trip with a game against San Antonio.
Adelman is very familiar with the Kings, having coached them for eight seasons from 1998-2006. He lost his first return trip to Sacramento on Dec. 1, when the Rockets fell 107-99, but beat his former club 89-87 in Houston on Feb. 13.
Second-year Rockets forward Steve Novak made a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer in that game to give Houston the eighth of its 22 straight victories.
After winning four of their previous five games, the Kings are trying salvage one win as they complete a three-game road trip. Playing without injured starters Ron Artest, Beno Udrih and Brad Miller on Saturday, Sacramento lost to Memphis 117-111.
Rookie center Spencer Hawes made the most of the extra minutes in the frontcourt with 19 points and 12 rebounds in his first career start.
“It helps with my development and help with my confidence. In all aspects, it helps me out,” said Hawes, the 10th overall pick. “It’s just unfortunate that it had to come when we didn’t get a victory.”
Developing young players like Hawes during the final 13 games is important for the Kings, who have fallen out of contention in the West. First-year coach Reggie Theus, however, insists that winning games is still his first priority.
“We’re going to try and win every one of them,” Theus said. “We want to keep developing our young guys, but we want to win. These last few games have been tough on us, but we’ve had a nice little run going. It’s important for us to end the season on a positive note, whether we make the playoffs or not.”
It’s unclear if any of Sacramento’s injured starters will be able to return Monday. The Kings would no doubt welcome back Artest, who has scored at least 30 points in three of his last five games against the Rockets. He had 30 on 11-for-18 shooting in Sacramento’s Feb. 13 defeat.