Thunder-Rockets Preview

It may seem oddly masochistic to be pining for a playoff matchup with one of two record-smashing NBA powers, but that's the exact sentiment of the Houston Rockets.

Sitting one game below the postseason cutoff in the Western Conference, the Rockets need a win against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday before a key matchup with one of the two teams they're battling for a postseason berth.

Houston (37-39) was tied with Dallas and clinging to a playoff spot after winning its third straight March 11, but seven losses in 11 games, coupled with Utah's 9-3 surge in the same span, have dropped the Rockets into ninth place in the West.

They entered the fourth quarter against Chicago on Thursday with a nine-point lead only to be outscored 32-20 en route to a 103-100 loss. Houston shot a paltry 28.6 percent (6 for 21) in the final 12 minutes.

The Rockets have actually shot the ball well in the fourth during the 11-game slump at 49.3 percent, but their defense has been horrid with an average of 28.1 points allowed.

Wednesday's loss was another sign of the club's wild inconsistency. Houston's wins in the last seven games came against Toronto and Cleveland - the top two teams in the East - while they've lost to teams at the cutoff like the Jazz, Bulls and Indiana.

"It's very frustrating, especially in games where we should win," said James Harden, who had only four points in the fourth after netting 18 in the final period of Wednesday's win against the Cavaliers. "We've got to figure it out."

A win against Oklahoma City (53-23) would be a good start ahead of Wednesday's crucial game against the Mavericks, who are tied with Utah in the standings.

The Jazz and Mavs both play Sunday, so a three-way tie is possible once the weekend is over, and there is also the benefit of Utah facing San Antonio on Tuesday before the Rockets head to Dallas. Houston can avoid Golden State in the first round by moving above Dallas and Utah, but seventh place only leads to the Spurs.

Neither matchup is a welcoming proposition, but first things first against the Thunder, who have won two of the first three meetings this season and don't necessarily need to send their star players out on the floor for this contest.

Oklahoma City moved 5 1/2 games ahead in the race for the No. 3 seed in the West with a 119-117 win over the fourth-place Los Angeles Clippers on Friday.

Kevin Durant scored 31 points and Steven Adams made a go-ahead tip-in with 26.9 seconds left against a Clippers team that rested Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan. Russell Westbrook added 26 points and 11 assists and the Thunder overcame a 16-of-29 outing from 3-point range by Los Angeles with a 46-26 rebounding edge.

"I give our guys credit for battling and hanging in there through an incredible shooting night by them," coach Billy Donovan said.

Westbrook has been electric against the Rockets this season with a pair of triple-doubles - both in victories - and has posted three in the last four meetings. He's averaging 28.0 points, 13.3 assists and 10.3 rebounds over that span.

Harden has been the horse for Houston with 31.3 points per game against the Thunder this season despite shooting 29.6 percent (8 for 27) from 3-point range.

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