The Houston Rockets have many concerns with just over a week to go before they begin the playoffs.
Three starters are battling injuries, their defense has been horrendous and their grasp of the Western Conference’s No. 4 seed isn’t so safe anymore. However, Houston still could lock up that spot as early as Friday night and would feel even better if James Harden is at full-speed for a road game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
With the Rockets (52-26) already missing Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley, Harden gave them a big scare Wednesday when he banged his left shin in a collision with Denver’s Aaron Brooks. Harden, who had 10 points and shot 1 of 9 after scoring more than 30 in three straight, briefly left the game to have his leg checked and only played sparingly after the injury.
"It was pretty painful. For a couple of seconds, my leg was numb," said Harden, who said he would have finished the game if it was the playoffs.
"But today was kind of pointless. Four more games left and we’re trying to stay (in the No. 4 seed)."
Houston had a four-game lead on Portland for fourth March 27 but has seen that gap cut to 1 1/2, though the Rockets won the season series tiebreaker. They can wrap up home-court advantage in the first round if they win in Minnesota on Friday and if the resurgent Blazers lose in Utah.
One reason Houston still hasn’t clinched that spot is a three-game skid after losing Howard (ankle) and Beverley (knee). The Rockets seemed to right the ship by winning three straight before falling 123-116 to the Nuggets on Wednesday.
The absences of Howard and Beverley are now up to seven games – both hope to return before the playoffs start – and Houston has allowed an average of 116.4 points without possibly their two best defenders. The Rockets have given up more than 120 in three straight as opponents hit 42.9 percent from 3-point range.
"I do think that we’ve got to shore up some things," Jeremy Lin said of the defensive issues. "I do think we should be concerned but we don’t need to overreact."
Houston’s 103.0 points per game allowed this season is the worst of any playoff contender.
"It’s been a (bad) habit all year long," McHale said. "If we don’t have good ball pressure, we can’t control the ball."
His team might not fare much better defensively against the Timberwolves, who rank fourth in the league with 106.4 points per game. That hasn’t mattered much in the season series, though, as Houston has won all three meetings by double digits even with Harden missing one and Howard sitting out a 129-106 win March 20 in the last meeting.
Harden scored 28 that night and improved to 15-1 lifetime against the Timberwolves.
Kevin Love is averaging 29.0 points in the season series, but Minnesota (39-39) has allowed Houston to score 116.0 per game on 52.4 percent shooting.
The Rockets still shouldn’t overlook the Timberwolves, who have knocked off Miami and San Antonio this month despite missing starters Nikola Pekovic (foot) and Kevin Martin (heel).
Minnesota also was without injured reserves Chase Budinger, Shabazz Muhammad and J.J. Barea on Wednesday against Chicago, and Love hyperextended his right elbow in the first half in a 102-87 defeat. Love finished the game but shot 7 for 20 and had 17 points, nearly nine below his average.
"Yeah it was bothering me a little bit, but that’s no excuse for the poor shooting," said Love, in an 11-for-39 slump from 3-point range.