After struggling in the fourth quarter in their past two games, the Houston Rockets got the kind of closing performance they needed to keep their postseason hopes alive.
The Rockets could move into a playoff spot Monday night if they can add to their recent mastery over the resurgent Minnesota Timberwolves while getting some help.
Houston's playoff hopes took a major hit with back-to-back losses to Dallas and Phoenix last week. The Rockets were limited to 15 points in the fourth quarter Wednesday in their 88-86 defeat against the Mavericks - their fifth in six road games - and were outscored 35-25 in a 124-115 defeat to the lowly Suns the next night.
They outpointed the Lakers 42-30 in that quarter Sunday, matching their most in any period this season, and James Harden had 20 of his 40 points in those 12 minutes in a 130-110 victory. That result kept Houston (39-41) within one game of Utah for the Western Conference's final playoff spot.
"It's been (a roller coaster), these type of fourth quarters and then the Phoenix-type of fourth quarters," coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. "It's not brain science. It's simple. We just need to do the simple things better for longer periods of time then don't change in the fourth quarter."
Utah will face seventh-place Dallas, which also hasn't clinched a playoff spot, on Monday. The Rockets currently have the tiebreaker over Utah with a superior conference record and against the Mavericks because of a better Southwest Division mark.
A Dallas win would mean that one more postseason spot is gone for Houston, but the Rockets could move back into eighth place by the slimmest of margins with that result. They would also have to earn a seventh consecutive victory against Minnesota (28-52).
"For us, you've got to win. It's simple for us. We understand the situation and the position we put ourselves in," Bickerstaff said. "There's games left and minutes to be played. We need to win and put the pressure on someone else to see if they make a mistake."
Houston has also won 10 of 11 over the Timberwolves but will face a team that's refusing to play out the string. Minnesota went 3-0 on last week's West Coast road trip, beginning with a 124-117 overtime victory against Golden State on Tuesday.
Karl-Anthony Towns delivered a 106-105 win against Portland on Saturday by scoring the final of his 27 points with 1.8 seconds remaining.
"To come out 3-0 against the teams that we played is a blessing," said Towns, who leads all rookies with 18.3 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. "It shows the progress."
Towns had 32 points - matching his second-most this season - in a 116-111 loss in Houston on March 18.
"He's had an amazing rookie season," coach Sam Mitchell said. "After about 40 games, we were waiting for him to hit that elusive rookie wall and I would talk to him about it and he would say, 'Coach, I'm not going to hit it.'"
Andrew Wiggins is averaging 27.5 points on 55.1 percent shooting in his last four games against the Rockets.