As satisfying as the Houston Rockets’ latest victory might have been, they’d surely consider one Thursday night to be a lot more meaningful.
It would be pretty big for the Cleveland Cavaliers, too.
A key reason the Cavaliers lead the Eastern Conference is their league-best home record, but no team has been hotter at home than Houston and that’s where they begin a challenging road trip as teams riding five-game winning streaks square off.
That run is the longest of the season for the Rockets (36-21), who are coming off Tuesday night’s 98-94 victory over a Portland team which entered with the fourth-best record in the West. Three of their previous four wins were against sub-.500 teams and the other came versus a visiting Dallas club which is 4-9 on the road in 2009.
“Our record doesn’t show it, but we’re starting to show the type of team we are,” Ron Artest said after Houston’s eighth straight home win. “We’re starting to come together.”
Artest has averaged 20.2 points since replacing Tracy McGrady in the starting lineup on the Rockets’ six-game homestand, which ends Thursday. McGrady was lost for the season to knee surgery, but Houston has been better without the former All-Star, going 16-6 when he’s been sidelined and winning seven of the last eight he’s missed.
Now Artest’s focus will be trying to guard LeBron James, who has been fairly quiet since Friday’s 55-point outburst at Milwaukee with a combined 35 in his last two games.
“We just have guys step up night in and night out,” Cavaliers coach Mike Brown said. “Whenever a guy goes down or someone’s having an off night, we’ve got to get production somewhere else.”
James’ lack of scoring didn’t slow down the Cavaliers (44-11) this week as they easily won home games versus Detroit and Memphis, improving to 26-1 at Quicken Loans Arena. They’ve played better lately on the road with wins in seven of nine.
Now they kick off a road trip in which all four games come against teams with winning records - Houston, San Antonio, Atlanta and Miami. Eight of their next 10 are away from home, including a matchup at Boston on March 6.
The Cavs beat the Rockets 99-90 on Dec. 23 for just their third win in 11 meetings since James entered the league. Artest, a former Defensive Player of the Year, helped force James into seven turnovers, but the league’s second-leading scorer had 27 points.
“Every time we play against each other, it’s fun,” Artest said after that meeting. “I’m in a different situation now and I’m not on him as much as I’d like to be. Guys like that push me.”
It’s unclear if Cleveland will have starting guard Delonte West available after he sat out Tuesday’s 94-79 victory over the Grizzlies. West scored 25 points two days earlier in his first game after missing 16 with a fractured wrist, but soreness prevented him from playing back-to-back games.
“As far as I know, it’s a maintenance thing,” Brown said. “He had his wrist immobilized for a few weeks. It might be something he has to deal with (the rest of the season.)”
One guy Cleveland hopes can continue to step up if West is out will be Houston native Daniel Gibson, who had 19 points Tuesday after averaging 6.4 on 34.7 percent shooting in his previous seven games.
“I told him it was about time he started making shots,” James said with a laugh. “We need that out of him.”
Cleveland has lost 17 of its last 20 visits to Houston and James’ only victory there was a 104-102 overtime win March 26, 2006.