Rockets-Jazz Preview

Associated Press  |  Last updated February 29, 2012
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.
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