A five-game win streak put the Houston Rockets in contention for the No. 1 seed in the competitive Western Conference with three games left.
Two disheartening losses and some nagging injuries, however, have them fighting to keep home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
The short-handed Rockets look to help their chances of starting the playoffs in Houston as they host the Los Angeles Clippers in each team’s regular-season finale on Wednesday night.
Houston (54-27) won five straight from April 3-11 to pull back into the race for the best record in the West. After shooting 47.7 percent during that win streak, however, the Rockets have combined to shoot 37.0 percent in back-to-back losses at Denver and Utah.
They matched a season-low with 28 field goals in Monday night’s 105-96 loss to the Jazz, whom they could meet in the first round of the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
Whomever they meet in the first round, they’ll have do to so without Rafer Alston—at least temporarily. The starting point guard has missed four of Houston’s last seven games because of a strained hamstring. He had been listed as day-to-day, but an MRI exam on Tuesday revealed a moderate-to-severe strain, and the team said Alston would miss at least a week.
Star guard Tracy McGrady (shoulder) and small forward Shane Battier (foot) have also missed time in the last week, adding to a long list of injured Rockets that includes the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, Yao Ming (foot), who won’t play again this season.
That doesn’t bode well for a Houston team in danger of missing out on home-court advantage in the first round. The Rockets are currently tied with Utah and Phoenix, and will likely need a win in their finale to get home-court advantage in their first-round series.
With so much on the line, the Rockets will be happy to return home to the Toyota Center, where they’re 30-10 overall, and 19-1 since Jan. 29. Their lone home loss in that stretch was a 94-74 blowout defeat against Boston that snapped their overall 22-game win streak, but Houston has still outscored opponents by an average of 11.8 points during that stretch.
Like the Rockets, the Clippers (23-58) know what it’s like to have key players sidelined by injuries. They’ve been without point guard Shaun Livingston (knee) all season, and two-time All-Star forward Elton Brand missed the first five months after rupturing his left Achilles’ tendon in the offseason.
Brand, however, has returned to average 17.6 points and 7.4 rebounds in seven games, making up for the more recent loss of center Chris Kaman, who will end his breakout season on the bench because of a sprained ankle that has kept him out of the last seven games.
Brand was held to nine points as Los Angeles fell 114-92 against New Orleans on Tuesday night.
The Clippers have lost their first two games against the Rockets, and are in danger of getting swept in the series for the third time in five seasons. Houston, which won all four games in 2003-04 and all three meetings in 2004-05, has taken 16 of its last 19 overall against Los Angeles.
McGrady is averaging 24.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.5 assists in two games against the Clippers this season.