A perfect four-game road trip helped the Houston Rockets move into sixth place in the Western Conference. The next five games could determine if they can stay there.
The surging Rockets begin an important stretch Wednesday night against the visiting Utah Jazz.
Houston (32-25) faced a very tough task in opening its trip with stops in Chicago and Los Angeles to face the Lakers. The Rockets, however, beat both division leaders and capped the trek with a 17-point victory over Sacramento on Sunday and a 94-89 win at Portland the next night.
“Before this road trip nobody was thinking we were going to win four in a row,” said point guard Goran Dragic, named West player of the week Monday after averaging 20.7 points, 8.3 assists and 2.7 steals in three games. “We played really well.”
The Rockets moved up two spots in the West with the perfect trip, but they know they can’t let up. Dallas, Denver and Phoenix are within two games, while the 10th-place Jazz (30-28) are 2 1/2 back.
“When you looked at the schedule, you went ‘Ooof.’ You said, ‘Man, we’re going to have to find a way to win some of those games,” coach Kevin McHale said. “We won them all, which is great for us. Now we have to go home and we have four huge games coming up.”
The next five, actually, look like they will have significant bearing on Houston’s playoff position.
After facing Utah, the Rockets host Phoenix on Friday and visit Denver on Sunday in the opener of a home-and-home series. They then visit Dallas next Wednesday.
Houston has split its first two meetings with the Jazz, with each team winning easily at home.
The Rockets shot 51.4 percent in a 101-85 win at Toyota Center on Feb. 19. Ten days later in Salt Lake City, Utah limited Houston to 39.0 percent shooting in a 104-83 victory.
Kyle Lowry led the Rockets in their victory, scoring 32 points and going 9 of 13 from the field and 7 of 8 from 3-point range. Two weeks after that game, Lowry was diagnosed with a serious bacterial infection which kept him sidelined for a month.
Monday marked his second game back, and he shot 5 of 6 and had 13 points in 23 minutes.
“I’m fine,” Lowry said. “I would ask for more but I’m going to pace myself.”
Though unfortunate, the infection led to the emergence of Dragic, who has started 17 games since Lowry was hospitalized. Dragic has averaged 18.5 points and 8.6 assists in Lowry’s absence while topping the 20-point mark in five of the last six games.
Houston has also stepped up defensively of late, holding three of the last four opponents to 93 or fewer points. The Rockets, allowing 97.3 per game, limited the Trail Blazers to 39.8 percent shooting and improved to 18-0 when holding opponents to fewer than 90 points.
The Jazz had reached triple digits in four straight games before looking out of sync Monday against San Antonio. Utah turned the ball over 20 times and shot 28.6 percent from 3-point range, but still beat a Spurs team playing without Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili 91-84.
Utah outscored San Antonio 27-16 in the fourth quarter with Devin Harris, who averages 10.9 points, scoring 12 of his team-high 25 in the final period. The Jazz are 16-4 when Harris scores at least 12 and 14-24 when he doesn’t, including three games in which he didn’t play - all losses.
Harris, averaging 23.7 points in the last three, scored 19 in the win over the Rockets and nine in the loss.