The Houston Rockets were operating against such a small margin for error that any misstep could prove detrimental and, on Tuesday in Milwaukee, they suffered a double whammy against the Bucks.
With their 108-94 setback at Fiserv Forum, the Rockets dropped four games behind the Denver Nuggets for the second seed in the Western Conference. Houston had won 14 of 16 games, but its first double-digit loss since the All-Star break combined with the Nuggets' 95-92 home victory over the Detroit Pistons all but eliminated the Rockets from snagging the No. 2 seed.
Houston will host Denver on Thursday, needing a victory to clinch the season series and home-court advantage in the off chance the teams conclude the regular season with the same record and meet in the playoffs, most likely in the West semifinals. The Rockets have seven games remaining on their schedule; the Nuggets have nine.
"We've got a chance to get the second seed and who would have thought (that) being in the 14th spot," Rockets guard James Harden said, alluding to the team's slow start. "It's a process and we continue to get better. We've got seven games and we'll take it game by game and try to have our swag ready for the postseason."
The Bucks implemented an overaggressive scheme of forcing Harden to his right hand, a gambit they tried on Jan. 9 when Harden posted 42 points in a 116-109 Houston loss at Toyota Center. Harden scored just 23 points in the rematch and missed 8 of 9 3-pointers after entering Tuesday 24 of 42 from deep over his three previous games.
The Rockets were reticent to fully credit the Bucks for uncovering a scheme to slow Harden, noting that Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker shot a combined 1 for 13 on 3s, many on open looks.
"When it doesn't work by us not making shots they're going to stay on him, so you've got to put that into it," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "He needed help with Eric or P.J. knocking down shots and we didn't hit them. I'm not a big believer in they can stop James; we can stop James."
In rebounding from a loss at Indiana on Sunday that snapped their six-game winning streak, the Nuggets kept the pressure on Golden State for the top spot in the West by defeating Detroit.
But even with their recent run, the Nuggets remain a mystifying team. The victory over the Pistons was a microcosm of their inconsistency, with Denver coasting to a 27-point lead before totaling only 29 points following the intermission while sweating out the final, tense moments.
"That's kind of been our M.O. lately: I never know which team is going to be out there quarter to quarter," Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. "That second half obviously, give them credit, but we allowed them to get back in the game. At halftime 16 assists (and) only four turnovers; I think the second half -- 11 turnovers for 12 points and that fueled their break and got them ... easy baskets.
"We have to be better than that. Nine games to go, if we want to be a serious team, a dangerous team in the playoffs, we can't piss away 27-point leads and almost lose it in that second half. Hopefully, we learn from it."
--Field Level Media
Rockets look to bounce back in home game vs. Nuggets
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