The Houston Rockets didn't go into their final four games in control of their playoff chances, but they did enter that stretch knowing that facing four of the worst teams in basketball gave them a great chance to keep the pressure on.
So far, so ugly.
After blowing a big lead in their first game against a lottery-bound lightweight, the Rockets desperately need to bounce back Sunday against the visiting Los Angeles Lakers or they may be bidding farewell to their postseason hopes along with Kobe Bryant.
The Rockets (38-41) blew a chance to pull even with Dallas in Wednesday's 88-86 road loss, then went out and blew a 13-point second-half lead to woeful Phoenix in a 124-115 defeat a night later. They're now three games behind the seventh-place Mavericks and a game behind eighth-place Utah.
"It's frustrating," James Harden said after Houston shot 56.8 percent in a loss for the first time since 1993. "Sums up our season."
Considering the competition, a lack of effort seems to be at least partly to blame. The Rockets were outrebounded 47-26 and allowed 36 second-chance points. No NBA team has given up more since November 2009.
"We've been doing too much talking," Harden said. "Now we've got to go out there and actually play well."
Houston could have been facing a two-game deficit for the eighth spot had Utah not managed to lose at home Friday to a Clippers team that rested Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick.
That reprieve won't mean much if the Rockets can't close with wins over the Lakers (16-63) and fellow lottery clubs Minnesota and Sacramento. Utah visits Denver and the Lakers with a home game against Dallas in between, and Houston will win the tiebreaker should they finish even due to a better conference record.
First, the Rockets get their chance to spoil one of Bryant's last few days in the NBA. He shot 54.1 percent in the first three meetings and had games of 25 and 22 points, but that made very little difference as Houston won three blowouts by an average of 22.
Bryant went just 4 of 15 from the field in 22 minutes Friday at New Orleans, where a 110-102 loss overshadowed 32 points from D'Angelo Russell and 26 from Jordan Clarkson.
Byron Scott wasn't paying much attention to his starting backcourt's offense, however.
"Defensively they were both awful," he said. "And two assists between the two of them ain't good. We've got to do a better job sharing the ball."
Scott's logic hasn't quite held up in this series. The Lakers have assisted on 63 percent of their field goals against the Rockets - well above their Western Conference-worst 51.1 season rate - but they've still only managed 93 points per 100 possessions against one of the league's worst defensive clubs.
Houston has outrebounded Los Angeles by 12.3 per game and held a 66-26 edge in second-chance points. Dwight Howard has averaged 16 points and 14 boards while Clint Capela is at 12.3 points and 11 rebounds per game.
Howard's offense has virtually disappeared of late, though, even prompting speculation that his teammates are freezing out a player who's expected to opt out of his contract in the offseason. He's averaged 8 points and just 5.4 field-goal attempts in his last eight games, going 12 for 40 (30 percent) from the free-throw line.