Suns-Rockets Preview

The Associated Press

After completing an impressive road trip, the Houston Rockets had a bad start to a five-game run against teams they're battling for a playoff spot.

Virtually every game remaining for the Phoenix Suns appears to be tough as they try to make the postseason.

The Rockets look to avoid a season-high third consecutive home loss Friday night and deal another blow to Phoenix's playoff hopes while boosting their own.

These teams are among a group of five within 2 1/2 games of each other for the final three playoff spots in the Western Conference.

Houston (32-26) will face all of its competitors for those postseason berths in an eight-day span starting this week, hosting Utah and the Suns before a home-and-home set against Denver and a visit to Dallas.

That stretch began in poor fashion with Wednesday's 103-91 loss to the Jazz following a 4-0 road swing that included wins over Chicago and the Lakers.

"We had a great road trip and had a little bit of a letdown but we will bounce back," said Kyle Lowry, who played his third game after missing 15 with a bacterial infection.

Houston fell to 5-5 at home since the beginning of March and now looks to avoid losing three straight there for the first time since January 2011.

The Rockets never led after the first quarter Wednesday, shooting a season-worst 35.6 percent and allowing an opponent to hit better than 50 percent for the first time in 11 games.

"Today was big and we let it go," forward Luis Scola said. "Now we have to see if we can get Friday against Phoenix."

Houston lost the season series tiebreaker to Utah but could win it against Phoenix, having won two of the first three meetings.

The Suns (30-28) fell to 10th place in the West with a 104-93 defeat in Memphis on Wednesday as Utah jumped past them by beating the Rockets.

"We really have to focus on getting every win possible and not worry about the standings," forward Josh Childress said. "When the season is over, see where we stand. We can't be playing for that seed. We've got to be playing to win every game."

Only one of Phoenix's final eight games is against a sub-.500 team and half of them are against three of the West's best - San Antonio (twice), Oklahoma City and the Clippers.

Phoenix has won five of seven and held fourth-quarter leads in both losses during that span, getting outscored 30-8 in the final five minutes.

"We've got to do a better job finishing games, especially on the road," coach Alvin Gentry said. "We play hard and we put ourselves in a position to have an opportunity to win a game, and you just have to finish it."

Gentry's club had no problem doing that when it last faced Houston, leading by double digits throughout the final three quarters in a 99-86 home win March 18. The Rockets similarly dominated the lone matchup in Houston, winning 99-81 on Feb. 3.

Michael Redd led Phoenix in the last meeting with 25 points but scored two Wednesday after averaging 17.2 in the previous five games. Shannon Brown, though, continued his solid play with 18 points - slightly above his average in nine games starting for the injured Grant Hill.

Former Sun Goran Dragic also has flourished since joining Houston's starting lineup 18 games ago when Lowry fell ill, averaging 18.6 points and 8.6 assists.

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