Pelicans' late playoff bid runs through Houston

The Associated Press

HOUSTON -- While the odds are slim at best, the New Orleans Pelicans have mustered hope for crashing the Western Conference postseason party with five wins in six games.

When the Pelicans visit the Houston Rockets (49-22) on Friday night at Toyota Center, they will be four games behind the Denver Nuggets for eighth in the West.

The Pelicans (30-41) would have to leapfrog the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers before even considering bypassing the Nuggets, with the website Basketball Reference placing their postseason odds at a meager 1.3 percent.

However, their three-game winning streak has at least made such lofty goals conceivable.

In the aftermath of their acquisition of All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins from Sacramento at the trade deadline, the Pelicans lost three consecutive games.

The ballyhoo that came from blending Cousins with All-Star Game MVP Anthony Davis was muted by the reality that time was required to mesh their skill sets.

When New Orleans lost six of eight games following the trade, with one of the two wins coming with Cousins suspended, striving for the postseason seemed farfetched.

Recent success has altered that picture.

Plus, the Pelicans have three games remaining against the Nuggets and one each against Dallas and Portland, five opportunities to directly improve their chances of sneaking into the playoffs.

"We're taking it a game at a time," said Cousins, who is averaging 21.9 points and 12.2 rebounds with New Orleans. "It's in the back of our minds. Everybody wants to make that playoff push; we still believe we can. We still have time. It's in the back of our minds.

"But at the same time, we know this is a process. This is a period of time for us to get used to each other, build a chemistry, and we're all looking forward to the future."

The closing stretch represents something altogether different for the Rockets.

Ostensibly locked into the third seed in the West -- Houston is five games clear of both the second-seeded San Antonio Spurs and fourth-seeded Utah Jazz -- the Rockets are pursuing optimal health and momentum in advance of the playoffs.

There are some concerns for the Rockets to sort through.

While Houston features the top offense in the league since the break with a 115.6 offensive rating, the Rockets are only 18th in defensive rating (106.7) during that stretch.

While the Pelicans traded for Cousins at the deadline, the Rockets acquired guard Lou Williams from the Los Angeles Lakers, and Williams often plays alongside two other guards in pursuit of more offense.

The downside? Houston ranks 25th in defensive rebounding rate over the 13 games since Williams joined its roster.

The Rockets won't sacrifice points for rebounds, not when their scoring reaches the elite levels it has since Williams joined the fray.

But the best way to combat their relative lack of size when their second unit takes the floor is to provide maximum effort on the glass, with their guards gang rebounding to render aid to their bigs.

By merely fighting for rebounds, the Rockets can make ample headway.

"That's all it is," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "You can have a deficit but if you're playing hard, that's good enough. That's good enough.

"We can go little, but if we fight we're not that little."

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