The Houston Rockets suffered a blow to their playoff hopes but all is not lost.
They have a favorable remaining schedule consisting solely of losing teams, beginning with Thursday night's home matchup with a Phoenix Suns club that has lost seven straight.
Houston (38-40) fell 88-86 at Dallas on Wednesday, falling two games behind the seventh-place Mavericks and one behind eighth-place Utah in the Western Conference playoff race. James Harden scored 26 and Dwight Howard had 14 and 16 rebounds for his 37th double-double.
''We all know how difficult it is, how important this game was,'' Harden said. ''It's not rocket science."
One factor still in Houston's favor is that it holds the two-team tiebreaker over the Jazz thanks to a superior conference record, and Utah has difficult contests left with the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas. If the Jazz falter once, the Rockets can get in by sweeping their final four games and that's not unreasonable with a closing slate that also includes the Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota and Sacramento.
Houston has taken seven of the last eight meetings with Phoenix, including two this season despite Harden shooting 28.6 percent and totaling 44 points. He shoots 43.4 percent and averages 28.6.
The Rockets superstar is even more dangerous in the second game of a back-to-back set, averaging a league-best 30.6 points on 44.8 percent shooting and connecting on 43.9 percent of his 3-pointers compared to his overall mark of 34.7.
Houston is 7-11 in second games of back-to-backs.
Phoenix (20-58) is headed for its worst season since winning 16 times in its inaugural 1968-69 campaign. The Suns are mired in their third-longest losing streak of the season after falling 103-90 to Atlanta on Tuesday to open a three-game trip. They built a 12-point halftime lead only to get outscored 59-34 the rest of the way.
''We were talking a lot, communicating a lot. That stopped in the second half,'' rookie guard Devin Booker said. ''It's something we've been working on all year, trying to put two halves together. But I think we're getting a lot better. I think we're showing a lot of fight."
Booker matched his second-best scoring effort with 34 points after consecutive 14-point efforts in which he shot 29.7 percent. He has yet to find the range against the Rockets, shooting 26.1 percent and totaling 27 points.
The Suns are last in the league with 17.1 turnovers per game and are allowing an NBA-worst average of 20.3 points off those miscues. Houston has totaled 67 points off 45 turnovers in the season series with a 63-31 edge in fast-break points.
The Rockets, who have dropped six of nine, entered Wednesday third in the league with an average of 17.7 fast-break points. They were limited to 14 by some physical Dallas defense.
''They got very handsy, they did a very good job of keeping us out of the break,'' coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. ''They smothered us in the backcourt.''
Trevor Ariza, who averages 12.5 points, was held to nine. He has been a major beneficiary on the break versus Phoenix, totaling 47 points on 55.6 percent shooting.
"We can't play to their pace, we have to play to our pace," said Ariza about being slowed down by the Mavericks.