NBA

Pelicans-Rockets Preview

With a handful of games left in the regular season, it's come down to a trio of teams vying to finish atop the NBA's most competitive division.

The Houston Rockets can ill afford another setback with three games to go and begin their push to win the Southwest on Sunday night against a New Orleans Pelicans club battling for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

After losing both ends of a home-and-home against San Antonio to drop into third place in the division, the Rockets (53-26) sit just a half-game out after Memphis lost 95-86 at the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday to fall into a first-place tie with the Spurs.

Houston, which has a game in hand on both rivals, fell back in the race when San Antonio capped the two-game sweep with a 104-103 victory at Toyota Center on Friday.

James Harden's layup attempt with 2.9 seconds left was blocked by Tim Duncan to secure the Spurs' 10th straight win. Harden was held to 16 points on 5-of-19 shooting, but finished with 10 assists for his 20th double-double this season.

"It's over with. We've got to get ready for the next one," said Dwight Howard, who had 12 points and 14 rebounds. "They played better as a team than we did and that's why they got the win. No excuses. Our main job is to get stops."

Houston has dropped two in a row at home only once this season, and if it avoids that fate again will overtake the Spurs if they lose to Phoenix on Sunday. That outcome, however, is unlikely since San Antonio has won eight in a row and 14 of 15 at home.

The more probable losing scenario involves the Grizzlies, who will follow Saturday's loss with another tough road matchup at league-leading Golden State on Monday before closing Wednesday at home against playoff-hopeful Indiana.

The Rockets' final two games are far more favorable, coming Monday at Charlotte and at home versus Utah on Wednesday. The Spurs wrap things up Wednesday at New Orleans (43-36).

The Pelicans may be last in the Southwest, but they enter this contest tied with Oklahoma City for eighth place in the West after winning six of eight since a four-game losing streak that threatened their chances.

New Orleans, which also visits Minnesota on Monday during its home stretch, owns the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Thunder via a 3-1 edge in the season series.

If the Pelicans reach the postseason, the Southwest will become the first division to put every team in the playoffs since the Central in 2005-06. They would sit no worse than third in any other division this season.

Both losses during the Pelicans' eight-game surge have come on the road, where they've dropped five of seven. They followed Thursday's 110-74 defeat at Memphis with a 90-75 home victory against Phoenix on Friday despite Anthony Davis missing half the game.

Davis left during the second quarter after being hit in the throat, but he returned in the fourth to a rousing ovation and finished with 19 points and nine rebounds.

"I was watching the game in the back and we were in control the entire game," he wrote on a team official's cell phone afterward because he couldn't talk. "I was having trouble swallowing. The doctors made sure I was OK and it was no hesitation to go back and play."

The Pelicans won two of the first three meetings with the Rockets this season, including a 99-90 victory Dec. 18 that ended a six-game skid in Houston.

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