Rockets continue quest vs. Pelicans
Winning a division title is nice but hardly a big deal for the Houston Rockets.
Securing a playoff spot with DeMarcus Cousins lost for the season would be significant for the New Orleans Pelicans.
The Rockets continue their quest to finish first in the Western Conference while the Pelicans continue their playoff push Saturday night when the teams get together in New Orleans.
Houston (54-17) is playing its first game since clinching the Southwest Division title with Thursday's 101-96 win over the Los Angeles Clippers. The Rockets are a division champion for the sixth time in their 51-season existence but want more such as the top seed in the West.
"It's good but not this year," Houston guard Eric Gordon told reporters. "We want that No. 1 seed and that's the main goal right now.
The Rockets are doing a good job of maintaining the top spot. They are 27-3 and 2 1/2 games ahead of the Golden State Warriors, who are without Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant.
Including a 17-game winning streak, the Rockets are 27-3 in their 30 games and the division occurred one of their worst shooting nights of the season. Houston shot 38.9 percent (third-worst of the season) and made 29.3 percent of its 3-pointers, marking the 12th time it shot less than 30 percent from 3-point range.
James Harden scored 24 points and is shooting 39.3 percent (13 of 33) in his last two games after sitting out Sunday's win at Dallas with a sore right knee. Gordon added 23 by hitting 7 of 9 3-pointers and is shooting 51.7 percent from 3-point range in seven games this month.
Houston's perimeter offense is expected to get a boost Saturday when Ryan Anderson returns from missing nine games with a left hip injury. Anderson last played in a 119-114 win at Denver on Feb. 25 and before getting hurt, he was 4 of 15 from 3-point range in his last three games.
Anderson's absence occurred shortly after Joe Johnson joined the team. They played three games together though Johnson was spending time filling in while Gordon was injured.
"We need to find a spot for Ryan and get that going," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "Now, having said that, it's kind of nice not to have decisions to make and being able to play everybody.
"We'll see, but we need him. I'm glad he's coming back. We need to get it done sooner than later and see where the problems are and get everybody used to playing maybe less minutes."
One of Houston's three losses since Jan. 6 was a 115-113 setback at New Orleans on Jan. 26. It was the same night Cousins was lost for the season with a torn Achilles tendon.
The Pelicans were on a four-game winning streak when their win over Houston and the injury to Cousins occurred. They struggled with the initial shock of losing Cousins by dropping five of the first six games after the injury.
Then they came alive.
Starting with a 128-118 double-overtime win at Brooklyn on Feb. 10, New Orleans is 11-3 in its last 14 games. They began a 10-game winning streak in Brooklyn but have dropped three of four since while averaging 96.3 points in those defeats.
New Orleans (39-29) is sixth in the West with little margin of error. The Pelicans are a half-game behind Minnesota and a half-game ahead of Utah and San Antonio.
"There's going to be two really good teams that are not going to make the playoffs. You have to take care of business," New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry told reporters after practice on Friday.
And if that's not tight enough, Denver is 1 1/2 games behind New Orleans followed by the Clippers, who trail by two games.
New Orleans will be hoping to rebound from a 98-93 loss at San Antonio Thursday. The Pelicans equaled their third-lowest point total of the season and shot 40 percent.
"These games become playoff games," Gentry told reporters. "You've got to able to execute offensively and defensively. We struggled a little bit at the offense end and getting to where we want to get to."
Jrue Holiday led the Pelicans with 24 points but missed 14 of 23 shots. He has scored at least 20 points 11 times since Feb. 10.
Anthony Davis finished with a double-double of 21 and 14 rebounds before fouling out. Davis is averaging 33.3 points in his last 13 games.
Houston has won nine of the last 11 meetings from New Orleans.
Updated March 17, 2018