Pelicans-Rockets Preview

With Dwight Howard sidelined and their defense continuing to struggle, the Houston Rockets missed an opportunity to move closer to clinching the fourth seed in the Western Conference.

As Howard nears closer to a return, Houston will try to avoid matching its longest losing streak of the season at three Saturday night against an injury-ravaged New Orleans Pelicans team that has dropped seven straight.

The Rockets (52-27) have gone 3-5 over an eight-game stretch without both Howard and starting point guard Patrick Beverley, two of the team’s top defenders. They’ve given up 115.9 points per game over that stretch and allowed Corey Brewer to score a career-high 51 in Friday’s 112-110 loss in Minnesota.

After James Harden hit a 3-pointer with 17 seconds left to tie the contest, Gorgui Dieng answered with a jumper with 4.6 remaining for the Timberwolves, who burned Houston for 39 fast-break points without All-Star Kevin Love.

Harden finished with 33 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds after scoring only 10 points on 1-of-9 shooting Wednesday in a 123-116 loss at Denver. The All-Star guard has averaged 29.5 points while hitting 41.8 from 3-point range in his last 11 games, and scored 27.2 per game over his last six against the Pelicans.

Houston could’ve wrapped home-court advantage in the first round with a win and a Portland loss in Utah, but neither of those happened Friday. Now Howard and Beverley are game-time decisions as the Rockets try to avert their third three-game skid of the season – all since March 11.

”We have no choice now,” Harden said. ”Three games to go, we’re trying to lock in home-court advantage and we just keep letting games slip away.”

Even if its starters aren’t able to return, Houston may be able to made strides defensively against a New Orleans team that has averaged just 93.7 points during their seven-game slide. Darius Miller and Austin Rivers finished with 18 points apiece as the Pelicans (32-47) shot just 40.7 percent in a 116-94 loss at Oklahoma City on Friday.

”Our guys, they just scrapped and clawed and tried to do what they can to help their teammates,” said coach Monty Williams, whose club was outscored 28-0 in fast-break points.

The Southwest Division-worst Pelicans, who dropped eight in a row in both January and February, have lost leading scorers Anthony Davis (20.8 points per game) and Eric Gordon (15.4) for the season due to injury. Making matters worse, the status of Tyreke Evans (13.9) is uncertain after he left Friday’s game with a right knee bone bruise.

New Orleans hasn’t surpassed 100 points while shooting 44.7 percent in a pair of losses to the Rockets this season. The Pelicans also have scored just 90.4 per game with a 41.8 field-goal percentage while dropping six of the last seven meetings overall.

Howard finished with 24 points and 18 rebounds while making 10 of 11 shots, Harden scored 21 and Chandler Parsons chipped in 19 in a 107-98 home win Dec. 28. Harden then had 26 points, Terrence Jones contributed 25 and Parsons added 17 in a 103-100 road win Jan. 15.

With Howard in the lineup, the Rockets have outscored the Pelicans 117-70 in the paint this season. New Orleans will host Houston in Wednesday’s season finale.