With the best regular-season record in the NBA all locked up, the Houston Rockets have begun looking ahead to the playoffs.
The Rockets still have two games remaining before postseason play begins next week, however, and they don’t plan on taking any chances against the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday night at Staples Center.
Those who are healthy will play at least some against the Lakers, but the Rockets (64-16) will likely keep shooting guard Eric Gordon and stretch forward Ryan Anderson on the bench as they recover from ankle injuries.
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“We’re going to be very careful with whoever plays, let’s put it that way,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni told the Houston Chronicle. “When we play, we’re going to play hard. It might be for three quarters, it might be for a half, it might be for a quarter. That will be determined.
“Most guys want to play. If somebody needs a break, we’ll give him one, but we’ll be very careful about how much we play.”
Houston forward James Harden seems like a lock to win his first NBA scoring title. He’s averaging 30.6 points, though he has only bettered that mark once in the past eight games. He’s third in the NBA at 8.7 assists after leading the league in that category last season (11.2).
Winning individual awards means little to Harden at this point of his career, however.
“The ultimate goal is holding that trophy up,” Harden said. “So until we do that, there’s no celebrations. … We haven’t done anything yet.”
Los Angeles (34-46) will be playing its final home game of the season.
The Lakers will miss the playoffs for the fifth straight season, but there’s plenty of optimism heading into the offseason.
The player generating the most excitement lately is rookie shooting guard Josh Hart, who’s coming off back-to-back 20-point games for the first time this season.
Hart had 20 points and 10 rebounds in a 113-96 loss to the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday night, and then came back with 25 points on 10-of-18 shooting in a 112-97 loss to the Utah Jazz on Sunday.
“Throughout the season, every time he gets the opportunity to play big minutes or have a bigger role, he has been pretty good for us,” Lakers coach Luke Walton told reporters after the game against Utah. “He is one of our best finishers, he’s one of our best rebounders, and he can push it in transition.”
Hart started in place of another rookie on Sunday. Kyle Kuzma missed the game after spraining an ankle against Minnesota. Los Angeles was also without rookie point guard Lonzo Ball (knee) and forward Brandon Ingram (concussion protocol).
“He’s done a nice job of figuring out what the NBA game is about,” Walton said. “I think he’s another one of those guys that’s going to have a big offseason, now that he’s gotten to experience guarding James Harden, guarding other teams’ best players, elite scorers, and also figured out where he can get his shots.”
Hart scored a season-high 26 points against the Rockets on Dec. 31, going 9 of 13 from the field in a 148-142 loss in Houston.