Saturday, June 22, 2024

NBA Preview: Houston Rockets (21-23) at Brooklyn Nets (17-27)

For rebuilding teams, progress can be measured in various increments, such as matching and eventually surpassing a win total from the previous season with a little more than two months remaining in the regular season.

It is a scenario the Houston Rockets will face Saturday night when they attempt to match last season’s win total in a game against the skidding Brooklyn Nets in New York.

The Rockets own a 21-23 record under first-year coach Ime Udoka after going 59-177 over the previous three seasons following a run of 14 consecutive seasons with at least a .500 record. Last season en route to a 22-60 finish, Houston was 10-34 through its 44th game and in the midst of a 13-game losing streak.

Besides matching their win total, the Rockets are hoping to reach — and exceed — .500 again before the All-Star break. They are currently in a 3-7 slump.

On Friday, Houston produced its highest point total of the season in a 138-104 road rout of the Charlotte Hornets. The Rockets scored 68 points in the paint and led by as many as 41. They shot 56.2 percent from the floor, getting their second-best shooting game of the season despite a quiet showing from Alperen Sengun.

Sengun was held to 11 points, equaling his second-lowest total all season, but plenty of others stepped up. Jalen Green posted his third 30-point game of the campaign, leading the Rockets with a season-best 36 points, while rookie Cam Whitmore added a career-best 24. Fred VanVleet contributed 14 points and six blocks on a night when the Rockets outscored the Hornets 83-51 after halftime.

Brooklyn is approaching the one-year anniversary of trading stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant in the midst of a series of difficult losses. Four of the Nets’ past five losses were by five points or fewer, and the one that was decided by more than that margin was a 125-114 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday, when Brooklyn allowed the game’s final 22 points.

Those losses are part of a stretch of 12 defeats in 14 games and 17 in 21 contests since the Nets were 13-10 following a four-point win in Phoenix on Dec. 13. Brooklyn is 10-12 at home but has lost five straight there.

The latest setback was a 96-94 loss to the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves on Thursday as the Nets dropped to 4-11 in games decided by five points or fewer. Brooklyn overcame a 10-point deficit in the final seven minutes, tying the game with 1:11 left, but the Nets’ defense allowed Karl-Anthony Towns to throw a lob to Rudy Gobert for a go-ahead dunk with 58.1 seconds left, and Brooklyn’s Mikal Bridges missed two free throws with 2.4 seconds left.

Cam Thomas scored 25 points and Bridges added 21, but the Nets shot 6-for-15 in the fourth quarter and are shooting 33.8 percent (26-for-77) in the final quarter of their past four defeats.

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