Playing for .500 finish, Rockets visit Blazers

An 11-game winning streak in March was not enough to put the Houston Rockets into playoff position, and the measuring stick of their improvement will be on display in the final weekend of the regular season.

If the Rockets can win their final two games, they will finish with at least a .500 record in the regular season for the first time since 2019-20.

The first of those two Houston games will come Friday night at the Portland Trail Blazers, another non-playoff team.

Houston (39-41) is 12-6 over its past 18 games and because of the competitiveness of the teams in the Western Conference, the Rockets could not move higher than 11th place, with the teams in the seventh through 10th slots earning a spot in the play-in round. The Rockets were one game behind the Golden State Warriors after a 101-100 win against the Utah Jazz on March 29 in the final game of the winning streak.

Now they sit six games behind the 10th-place Los Angeles Lakers in the conference.

Thursday’s 124-121 loss at Utah ensured the best the Rockets can do is finish at .500. Houston’s last winning season was in the final full campaign with James Harden on the roster, and it went a combined 59-177 over the next three seasons.

Against a Jazz team with 13 straight losses, Houston could not win despite Fred VanVleet’s 42-point showing. VanVleet scored his most points of the season after getting 37 in Tuesday’s 12-point win over the Orlando Magic and has hit 15 of 24 3-point attempts in his past two games. That followed an 11-of-35 showing from behind the arc during a five-game losing streak.

“We should be concerned, should be disappointed, should be (angry) at ourselves because it was a wasted opportunity,” VanVleet said after the Rockets made 21 of 47 3-point attempts (44.7 percent) but shot 42.1 percent overall.

Cam Whitmore added 18 points off the bench and Amen Thompson contributed 15 and 10 rebounds. Jalen Green was held to three points on 1-of-7 shooting and limited to 19 minutes in a game in which Rockets coach Ime Udoka said “guys didn’t look like they wanted to play.”

Portland (21-59) is attempting to avoid the fourth 60-loss season in team history and the first since going 21-61 in 2005-06. The Blazers are 2-13 in their past 15 games, a stretch that includes a 110-92 loss at Houston on March 25 amid a 10-game losing streak.

On Thursday, Portland suffered its third straight loss when it could not expand a six-point lead about midway the fourth quarter, gave up a 16-1 run and took a 100-92 setback to the Golden State Warriors that also extended its home losing streak to six games.

Deandre Ayton led the Blazers with 25 points and had 11 rebounds, and rookie Scoot Henderson posted 18 points and 12 assists, but Portland shot 36.1 percent from the field in the loss.

“They’re all going through the same maturation process,” Blazers coach Chauncey Billups said. “They’re playing their butts off, they’re playing hard as hell, they’re giving me everything they’ve got, which I love. And they’re tired as heck right now.”

Ayton is among the few bright spots in Portland’s first season since the team dealt Damian Lillard to the Milwaukee Bucks. Ayton’s showing at Golden State was his sixth straight double-double and 32nd overall, and he is averaging 24.7 points in his past seven games.

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