|Rockets focusing on Heat after topping Warriors|
HOUSTON -- Locked in a stretch of games where the challenges are severe and unique, the Rockets attempted to avoid lingering too long on their win against the Golden State Warriors.
The Rockets (32-12) will host the Miami Heat on Monday night at Toyota Center having already defeated the Minnesota Timberwolves and Warriors at home in succession. And while some in the postgame locker room on Saturday night shifted their focus to the Heat, others acknowledged the significance of beating the Warriors for a second time this season and securing the tiebreaker in the event the teams complete the season with the same record.
Golden State presents challenges that few teams can successfully counter. That Houston survived matters both in the immediate future with a quality squad like Miami upcoming, and down the line in the event that the Rockets and Warriors square off in the postseason.
"They're going to give you their best shot every time; they don't play around," Rockets reserve forward P.J. Tucker said of the Warriors. "They put people in compromising positions with switches, and they're one of the smartest teams in the league. I think those kinds of tests early in the seasons, matchups now (matter). Obviously, the postseason is a long way from now and there'll be probably two totally different teams by then, but it's good to get that test early."
With the Warriors behind them for the foreseeable future, what remains for the Rockets is establishing continued cohesion following a series of injuries that have stymied momentum. Houston will welcome both Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green back to their rotation off suspension against the Heat, and will presumably begin the task of reestablishing its identity.
The Heat (27-19) produced another example of the grit that has fueled their rise in the East on Saturday night, rallying past the Charlotte Hornets 106-105 despite their short-handed roster.
Already down guard Dion Waiters, Miami played without guards Goran Dragic (knee) and Tyler Johnson (ankle) against the Hornets. Its makeshift lineup included Wayne Ellington making his first start of the season and, appropriately, he responded with six 3-pointers and a game-high 26 points. That performance was emblematic of what Miami does, particularly over the last month with the Heat winning 12 of their last 16 games to climb to fourth in the East.
By outscoring Charlotte 33-22 in the final period, Miami, which fell in Brooklyn on Friday night, avoided consecutive losses yet again. The Heat haven't dropped back-to-back games since early December which is right around the time the tenacity was ratcheted up a notch.
"It's not necessarily about that final score," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "It's more about feeling, OK, we did it on our terms in the fourth quarter. It didn't look like it was heading that way in the third quarter. They just lit us up and it looked a lot like (Friday) night.
"Guys took ownership of it. Our defensive intensity in the fourth quarter was the best part, the most consistent part during the game. That's when it's toughest. That's the identity we want to stay true to regardless of what happens there at the end."