Raptors-Rockets Preview

Houston is already making a mess of a difficult stretch as it tries to sneak into the postseason, but if it can weather six more games, its final four are as favorable as it gets.

That might seem quite a ways off with a three-game losing streak heading into Friday night's visit from the Toronto Raptors, which kicks off the pivotal 10-game stretch for one of last season's Western Conference finalists.

The Rockets (35-37) flubbed what could turn out to be the most important game of the closing month in Wednesday's 89-87 home loss to Utah. They're competing with the Jazz and Dallas for the West's final two playoff spots.

"The season's not over," coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. "We're in a position where, we take care of business we can still get into the playoffs. But we've got to take care of business. There's no more excuses."

Those final four games come against Phoenix, the Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota and Sacramento - they face only the Timberwolves on the road - but the Raptors (48-22), Indiana, Cleveland, Chicago, Oklahoma City and the Mavericks could render those games trivial if the skid continues.

Another would match two other losing streaks for the Rockets' longest this season after never going beyond two in 2014-15.

James Harden had 26 points, 10 assists, eight steals and seven rebounds against the Jazz, but Houston conceded a 48-32 rebounding advantage, including 13-4 on the offensive glass. It was the club's second-worst rebounding effort of the season, though it's been less of an overall concern on the skid than offense.

The Rockets have averaged 97.0 points and shot 42.4 percent in the losses, falling to 2-16 when failing to reach 100 points and 5-20 when shooting below 43.0 percent.

Houston and Toronto have traded wins and losses since the start of 2011-12 with the Rockets winning five of nine, including a 113-107 final in Toronto on March 6 behind Harden's 40 points and 14 assists. It was the first road win by either team in the series in that time, and the Rockets have won the last eight in Houston.

The Raptors' formality of wrapping up the Atlantic Division stalled in Wednesday's 91-79 loss in Boston, and their offensive effort made the Rockets' recent work look impressive. It was the first time they'd been held under 100 points in 13 games and the fifth time under 90 all season while shooting 34.8 percent.

DeMar DeRozan had 21 points but has shot 37.5 percent in his last four games.

"Miss as many open looks as we had, we didn't deserve to win," said coach Dwane Casey, whose team is playing the second of a three-game trip.

"That team, they beat us, they spanked us. They are a very good team and we talked about how good defensively they were. If you don't play with force you are not going to score and we had trouble scoring."

Granted, Kyle Lowry sat out to rest a sore elbow, and that could become the norm for key players down the stretch. Casey isn't above resting his players heading into the final 12 games and said he will prioritize that over any standings push.

"Health is more important," said Casey, who has the only team within reach of Cleveland for the East's top seed.

"I think we are all fighting for it, but if it comes between a guy fighting a sore ankle, a sore calf, a sore knee or whatever fighting for that spot. My team's health is more important than putting him out there and maybe further damaging him."

Point guard replacement Cory Joseph went 4 of 16 and has shot 23.1 percent in his last six games.

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