HOUSTON -- It was the latest in an impressive series of signature performances from Houston Rockets guard James Harden, with his dismantling of the host Trail Blazers on Tuesday and it is emblematic of the unyielding commitment his team is showcasing during the stretch run of the regular season.
The Rockets (57-14) extended their latest winning streak to six games with a white-knuckle, 115-111 victory in Portland, building their lead over Golden State to four games in the pursuit of homecourt advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs. With 11 games left, the Rockets have all but clinched the top seed and accomplished one of their longstanding goals. All that remains before the playoffs commence is maintaining a strict adherence to quality play.
"That locker room is the best I've ever seen," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "There's nobody pouting or down (about fluctuations in playing time). We've got a mission, and everybody is on board. Totally."
Houston will open a five-game homestand on Thursday at Toyota Center against the Detroit Pistons.
Four of the Rockets' opponents on this homestand are out of the postseason picture, with Houston just two wins shy of eclipsing the franchise single-season record for victories set during its first championship season in 1993-94. There is a strong likelihood that the Rockets will hit the 60-win plateau for the first time before they visit the San Antonio Spurs on April 1.
Should the Rockets secure the top seed and set a new franchise benchmark for wins by the close of this month, then they might consider resting their regulars in advance of what they hope will be a prolonged postseason run. But until those goals are met, Houston will remain focused on dispatching opponents with Harden, the MVP frontrunner, leading its charge.
"It's hard. It's pretty tough," said Harden, after scoring a game-high 42 points against the Trail Blazers, of the challenge he presents opposing defenses. "Not just because of me but because of the way our team is stacked up. We have a lot of talent on both ends of the floor."
With their playoff hopes essentially extinguished, the Pistons (32-39) are seeking to carry something positive into the offseason. Detroit claimed its second consecutive road win on Tuesday at Phoenix, a modest rebound after a 12-game skid away from Little Caesars Arena.
Guard Reggie Jackson returned to action in that 115-88 victory, posting seven points and two assists over 15 minutes following his 37-game injury hiatus. The Pistons were five games over .500 when Jackson suffered a right ankle sprain on Dec. 26, and while his return doesn't solve all their roster issues, the Pistons are somewhat closer to whole with Jackson back in the fold.
"Regardless of what happens the last 11 games here, if we can get Reggie healthy and keep him healthy, with those three guys that's going to be a formidable group to play against," Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy said of Jackson, forward Blake Griffin and All-Star center Andre Drummond. "This can be a good team. Nothing that happens in the next 11 games would change my mind. They just need time together and they need health."