Rockets-Jazz Preview

After a slow start, the Houston Rockets are making a strong push

up the Western Conference standings.

The Utah Jazz are heading in the opposite direction following

their quick start.

Houston goes for a fifth consecutive victory – and second over

the Jazz in 11 days – on Wednesday night when it opens a road-heavy

portion of its schedule with its lone visit to Salt Lake City.

Since dropping seven of 10 to begin coach Kevin McHale’s tenure,

the Rockets (21-14) have climbed into a second-place tie with

division rival Dallas in the Southwest as well as fourth overall in

the Western Conference.

Houston returned from the All-Star break Tuesday and defeated

Toronto 88-85 to complete a six-game homestand 5-1 and move a

season-best seven-game above .500.

While the Rockets’ defense has helped them pull out some close

wins – they’ve won their last three by a total of 13 points – the

team needs to improve on the offensive end after making a

season-low 29 field goals and shooting 38.7 percent against the

Raptors.

“We’re going to have to be much, much better than that starting

really soon, like tomorrow night,” McHale said.

The Rockets had one of their better offensive performances of

the season to begin their current winning streak in beating Utah

101-85 on Feb. 19.

Led by Kyle Lowry’s career high-tying seven 3-pointers and 32

points and 26 from Luis Scola, Houston shot 51.4 percent in that

contest for its third straight victory in this series.

The Rockets, though, are far from a finished product as they

open a stretch of eight of 11 away from home with a 6-10 road

record.

“We need to win on the road, we need to win big games,” Scola

said.

Utah just needs a win.

Since opening the season 10-5, the Jazz (15-18) have dropped

into 11th place in the West, 2 1/2 games behind eighth-place

Portland.

Utah has lost three straight by a combined 13 points.

‘We’re close. We’re fighting hard,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin

told the team’s official Twitter account following Tuesday’s 103-96

loss at Sacramento. “But we’re making too many mistakes down the

stretch that’s cost us ball games.”

The Jazz couldn’t hold on to a seven-point fourth-quarter lead

and lost 97-96 in the Rockets’ last visit on Feb. 2, 2011.

Kevin Martin, who scored on a three-point play with 6.9 seconds

left in that game and led Houston with 22 points, will try to find

his range Wednesday after missing 12 of 15 shots against

Toronto.

Martin had 11 points in the Feb. 19 victory, but he’s still

averaging 24.5 in six games versus Utah since joining the Rockets

two years ago.

Lowry is scoring a team-best 25.3 points per game while

averaging 8.0 assists and 6.0 rebounds during Houston’s winning

streak in this series, but he’s not overlooking the Jazz.

“They’re going to be very physical,” he said after scoring a

team-high 26 points with five assists Tuesday.

Utah, though, could be thin up front if forward Paul Millsap

can’t go because of a bruised heel suffered Tuesday.

Millsap scored 22 points in the Feb. 19 win.

Jazz forward Al Jefferson is averaging 25.4 points and 15.2

rebounds while posting 10 consecutive double-doubles – the last

four while with Utah – against the Rockets.

He finished with 23 points and 11 boards earlier this month in

Houston.

The Rockets have been outrebounded in seven consecutive

games.