Rockets-Cavaliers Preview

The playoff chase for two of last season's conference finalists couldn't be much more different. The Cleveland Cavaliers are inching toward wrapping up the Eastern Conference's top seed, while the Houston Rockets are trying to keep a two-month slide from costing them a playoff spot altogether.

Though there's work to be done in both cases, the Cavaliers will give LeBron James a rest as they look to sweep the season series Tuesday night after Houston had done the same for the previous three seasons.

The Rockets (36-38) are 11-16 since Jan. 27 and 1-4 in their last five after Sunday's 104-101 loss at Indiana. They hadn't been two games under .500 all season until last week as they compete with Portland, Utah and Dallas for the West's last three playoff spots.

Against the Pacers, James Harden had 34 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, but the Rockets settled for 3-pointers and went 7 of 33. They've shot 31.3 percent from beyond the arc in the last 14 games and continued to go that route after finishing the first half 2 of 18.

"We need to be more aggressive," said Harden, who's averaged 28.3 points and 11.5 assists in his last six games.

It could get worse before it gets better with the stop in Cleveland followed by home games against Chicago and Oklahoma City before visiting Dallas. If Houston can get through that stretch in decent shape, it closes the season at home against Phoenix and the Los Angeles Lakers, at Minnesota and home versus Sacramento.

Regardless of opponent, Houston remains focused on playing its own way. That just hasn't been as effective this season with the Rockets assured of their worst 82-game regular-season record since going 43-39 and missing the playoffs in 2010-11.

"I think we're playing at our best when we're moving the basketball and defensively rebounding the basketball or just moving at a high pace," Harden said. "That's our brand of basketball, so no matter who we're playing, if we play that way, we'll be in good hands."

Coach Tyronn Lue has said James is feeling particularly strong of late, and that was a tough notion to dispute after watching the four-time MVP put up 27 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in Saturday's 107-93 win at New York.

But with Tuesday's contest the Cavaliers' only one between that win and Thursday's game against Brooklyn, Lue announced after Monday's practice that he'd give James a night off against the Rockets.

"Not too many chances and opportunities to rest one game and have four days off, so I thought it was a good opportunity to rest him," Lue said.

The Rockets did Cleveland (52-21) a favor by beating Toronto on Friday, but it doesn't look like the Cavs will necessarily need the help to lock up the top seed over the second-place Raptors. They've won 11 of 15 and are after a fourth straight home win.

The win over the Knicks followed Thursday's 104-95 letdown in Brooklyn, which seems fresh in their minds.

"Play hard and play for each other (and) respect the game," guard J.R. Smith told the team's official website. "When we played in Brooklyn, we disrespected the game. We came out relaxed, and we can't do that."

Another victory will match last season's win total in eight fewer games and move Cleveland a game closer to its first top seed since 2009-10.

The Cavs opened the series with a 91-77 win in Houston as both teams shot under 40 percent. In three matchups since the start of last season, Cleveland has shot 40.4 percent.

Kyrie Irving, however, has averaged 26.6 points in five career games against the Rockets, scoring 38 in the last home meeting Jan. 7, 2015.

Cavaliers swingman Iman Shumpert is questionable with a sore left knee after missing Monday's practice.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.