MILWAUKEE (AP)—The Milwaukee Bucks may be pulling it together just in time for the playoffs.
The Bucks (37-39) are two games ahead of Washington (34-40) in the race for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Wizards lost to Sacramento, and the Bucks hold the tiebreaker over them.
“We control our own destination,” Cassell said. “I’m not worried about the Wizards. We just have to win.”
Houston’s loss meant Portland clinched a playoff berth in the Western Conference.
Houston (38-37) has lost four of five and is 1 1/2 games behind Phoenix for the No. 8 spot in the West.
“I don’t even want to talk about the playoffs,” Houston guard Steve Francis said. “I just want to win one game … to see how it feels to win one game. We keep talking about the playoffs, but we can’t even win a game.”
Milwaukee’s next four opponents are Cleveland, Chicago, the Los Angeles Clippers and Toronto, all teams with sub-.500 records. If the Bucks win them all, Washington would have to win its final eight games to have a chance to get that final playoff spot.
“We are starting to play the way we are supposed to,” Milwaukee guard Gary Payton said. “We know we have players who can score with anybody, but defense will get us to the playoffs.”
The defensive key for the Bucks on Wednesday night was Toni Kukoc’s play on Yao Ming in the fourth quarter. Kukoc moved around Yao, holding him without a shot attempt and allowing him to get only one rebound, while forcing two steals in the period.
“As a big guy, he’s used to people putting a body on him,” Kukoc said. “Since I don’t have a body to put on him, it was easier for me to try and move from side to side. What I tried to do was anticipate and beat him to the spot. It worked well a couple times.”
Milwaukee used a 9-0 run midway through the fourth quarter to take a 93-80 lead on Desmond Mason’s three-point play with 5:52 left. Mason scored five points and Payton had four during the run.
The Rockets pulled to 102-97 with 53 seconds left after Glen Rice hit a 3-pointer, but Houston didn’t get closer. Milwaukee made all six of its free throws in the final 61 seconds.
Payton and Kukoc each had 18 points for the Bucks, who scored 20 points on 22 Houston turnovers.
“It was basically turnovers, unforced turnovers that killed us,” Houston forward James Posey said. “We still had some chances, but we had too many turnovers.”
Yao had 15 points and six rebounds in 33 minutes for Houston, although 12 of the points and four rebounds came in the first quarter. Posey scored 20 points to lead the Rockets, while Francis added 17 points but committed six turnovers.
Milwaukee had 16 offensive rebounds, allowing the Bucks to take 20 more shots than the Rockets.
“We are a very difficult team to beat when we create second-shot opportunities,” Bucks coach George Karl said. “We shot the ball 20 more times than they did. That’s difficult to overcome.”
The Bucks took the lead for good at 74-72 on Cassell’s 13-foot jumper with 1:41 left in the third quarter.
Houston went ahead 33-20 lead early in the second quarter, but the Bucksmade 14 of 20 shots in the quarter to tie it at halftime.
Thomas, who refused to enter a game last week, was booed by the Bradley Center crowd when entering late in the first quarter. The fans cheered him in the second quarter when he scored 11 points and blocked a shot by Yao. … Bucks rookie F Marcus Haislip made his second consecutive start, and the second of his career, scoring eight points. … The Bucks played without F AnthonyMason (sore left thigh) and F Jason Caffey (sore back).