April 15, 2014

James Harden and Gordon Hayward are playing through injuries in hopes that their teams will still be playing past the regular season.

One will be feeling a little better about his playoff prospects following Wednesday night's critical matchup between the Houston Rockets and visiting Utah Jazz.

Just a half-game separates Houston (35-36) and Utah (34-36) for the Western Conference's eighth seed, with the Jazz tightening the race by winning five of six as the Rockets have lost four of six.

Though Utah comes in as the hotter team, it also owns the more difficult path to the postseason. While Houston will play six of its next nine at home, the Jazz enter the midway point of a season-high five-game trip and faces Southwest Division champion Oklahoma City on Thursday.

Utah opened the trek with a 92-85 loss to Chicago but bounced back with Sunday's 94-85 win over Milwaukee. Hayward, in his second game after missing two with plantar fasciitis in his right foot, scored 13 of his 18 points in the third quarter to help turn a 42-41 halftime edge into a 14-point advantage.

''(My foot) is fine,'' said Hayward, held to nine points on 4-of-13 shooting by the Bulls. ''It is going to be sore the rest of the season. That is just the nature of that injury."

Harden didn't miss any time after spraining his left ankle in Saturday's 109-97 loss at Atlanta, logging 40 minutes and compiling 24 points and a career-high 16 assists Tuesday at Oklahoma City.

"I had to be out there. For us, every game counts," said Harden, who's missed only one game the past two seasons. "I had to put whatever I've got going on to the side and just try to go out there and get the win."

That effort still wasn't quite enough to prevent a tough 111-107 defeat to the Thunder, who used a late 9-2 run to overcome a 99-97 deficit with 3:20 remaining.

''We felt like we were in it the whole game,'' Rockets center Dwight Howard said. ''We had great opportunities to win. (Kevin Durant) made some tough shots, Russ (Westbrook) made some tough shots and they got some stops down the stretch. That won them the game.''

The Jazz have had trouble containing Harden this season, with the All-Star guard averaging 35.0 points over the three meetings. He had 42 in Salt Lake City on Feb. 23, but Hayward's 28 points helped Utah halt a three-game series skid with a 117-114 overtime victory.

Utah, which has lost six straight in Houston since a 103-91 win on April 11, 2012, has been solid defensively of late. The Jazz are yielding 87.2 points and holding opponents to 29.1 percent from 3-point range over their 5-1 stretch.

They're also shooting well from the outside, averaging 11.2 3-pointers on a 38.6 percent success rate over their last five. Shelvin Mack is 14 of 24 while averaging 16.8 points and 8.7 assists over his past six.

Houston, 22nd in 3-point percentage defense (36.2), is 6-20 when opponents shoot 40 percent or better from beyond the arc.

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