April 07, 2014

The Houston Rockets are entering a back-to-back set, but their goal Sunday night should be to get their stars plenty of rest for the back end.

That's because they have blown out the Los Angeles Lakers twice this season and have won five straight on the road in this series entering a contest that may not feature Kobe Bryant.

Houston's tumultuous season reached the midpoint Friday with a 91-77 loss to Cleveland that ended a five-game win streak. The club fired Kevin McHale due to a 4-7 start, with J.B. Bickerstaff serving as interim coach and guiding the Rockets (21-20) to a winning record.

"It's clear that we're better and we're getting better," Bickerstaff said. "We're not as good as we will be by the end of the season. We will continue to get better."

Houston's leaders in minutes are James Harden and a pair of former Lakers in Dwight Howard and Trevor Ariza. They failed to reach their average playing time in two December routs over Los Angeles by an average of 24.5 points, and a similar effort would pay dividends for Monday's game against the Clippers.

Harden has totaled 55 points and Howard 34 points and 27 rebounds versus the Lakers.

Bryant scored 47 as he made 9 of 16 shots in each of those games for his best shooting efforts of the season. The retiring superstar is shooting 34.6 percent overall for the NBA's worst mark among qualifying players.

His sore right Achilles flared up in Saturday's 109-82 defeat at Utah. Bryant plans to get treatment Sunday morning to see if he can play in this game.

''Jamming it up a little bit, pushing off the toe in an explosive manner sometimes does it,'' said Bryant, who made 2 of 8 shots for five points. ''I just tweaked it and couldn't shake it lose tonight.''

Los Angeles (9-33) may be without rookie starting forward Larry Nance Jr., who left in the first quarter with a knee injury and did not return. If Nance can't play, Julius Randle may receive his first start since Dec. 6.

The Lakers allow an average of 107.7 points per 100 possessions for the NBA's worst mark. They are allowing the opponents to shoot 46.3 percent - the same mark the Rockets are yielding.

Harden seeks to bounce back after making 2 of 10 shots for 11 points - one above his season low - in Friday's loss. He also had five assists with eight turnovers.

"They did a good job of using their hands, getting deflections, trapping me, making me give up the ball a little bit," Harden said.

Houston shot 47.1 percent and averaged 103.4 points in its longest win streak of the season before connecting at 35.1 percent and finishing with its lowest point total Friday.

"In the five games that we won, we did a really good job of moving the ball, sharing the ball and making plays for others," Howard said. "And tonight I don't think we did that."

The Lakers, losers of six of seven, are 1-8 in the second of back-to-back games. They seek a better start after falling behind by 14 points after one quarter and 24 at the half Saturday.

''I thought we came out like we won 10 in a row, it was just more laid back," coach Byron Scott said.

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