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Competition eases for Rockets as Cavs visit

(Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Houston Rockets, even with a 116-109 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks that snapped their 10-game home winning streak, can take pride in going 12-3 over the most difficult part of their schedule.

Houston now will shift gears a bit, beginning a stretch against lesser opponents when they take on the Cleveland Cavaliers (8-34) on Friday at Toyota Center.

The Rockets (23-17) had entered their difficult stretch back in early December, having lost seven of nine games, but they turned their season around behind the stellar play of James Harden to win 12 of 15. They claimed seven of those victories without guard Chris Paul (hamstring) while contesting the last five games with guard Eric Gordon (knee) also sidelined.

That combination of debilitating injuries and stiff competition -- with Houston facing the likes of Portland, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Boston, Denver and Milwaukee -- made for a harrowing challenge.

"You've got to keep fighting. That's what it's about," Harden said. "It's the grind. We've been playing some really good teams and you've got to continue to fight. We've been down a couple players but that's no excuse."

The Rockets, after losing at Milwaukee on Wednesday night, will play four consecutive games against teams currently with losing records. Games against Orlando, Memphis and Brooklyn will follow the matchup vs. Cleveland.

"These games are probably more important than the ones we've been playing," said Harden, who averaged 39.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 9.0 assists during that 15-game span.

"Just because these teams are feisty, they're scrappy and they're going to come in here and try to get a big road win. So, we've got to lock back in, watch some film, prepare, get ready for Cleveland."

The Cavaliers have the worst record in the NBA, have dropped 11 consecutive games and last won on the road at Brooklyn on Dec. 3. However, Cleveland claimed the previous meeting with the Rockets this season, winning 117-108 on Nov. 24.

Harden had 40 points and 13 assists in the loss, while Cleveland rookie guard Collin Sexton tied his career high with 29 points. Sexton is averaging 14.6 points, second on the team to guard Jordan Clarkson (17.3).

This will be the final matchup of the season between the teams.

The Cavaliers opened a 16-point, first-half lead at New Orleans on Wednesday night, only to later trail by as many as 18 in a 140-124 loss. They have been beset by injuries, with Rodney Hood (left Achilles), Kevin Love (toe) and Larry Nance Jr. (knee) unavailable against the Pelicans.

The 6-foot-9 Nance could miss at least two weeks after an MRI on Thursday revealed a sprained MCL in his right knee, ESPN reported. Nance suffered the injury in Tuesday's loss to Indiana after colliding with Pacers forward Thaddeus Young on a first-quarter drive to the basket.

In his first full season with Cleveland, Nance has appeared in 39 games (17 starts) and is averaging 8.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.5 steals in 25.6 minutes. All of those numbers are career highs.

Already bereft of top-line talent, the Cavaliers are further compromised by their patchwork roster and a defense that ranks last in the league in efficiency, allowing 116.9 points per 100 possessions.

"That's something we're going to have to really look at moving forward with this group," Cavaliers coach Larry Drew said of blowing leads.

"I know we've talked about our situation as far as injuries are concerned, but we can't use that as an excuse. We can't look at that as a problem. We've got to buckle down and try to put four solid quarters together, which we haven't been able to do."

--Field Level Media

Updated January 11, 2019

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