The Houston Rockets hoped to make up some ground in the tight Western Conference playoff race by taking advantage of some lesser competition.

A disheartening loss to one of the West's few non-contenders, however, wasn't the way the team wanted to start its final playoff push.

The Rockets look to bounce back from a crucial loss as they visit the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night.

Houston (49-25) vaulted to the top of the conference during its 22-game win streak Jan. 29-March 16, the second-longest streak in NBA history. The Rockets had that run snapped by league-best Boston on March 18, and since then have lost games against fellow West contenders New Orleans, Phoenix and San Antonio.

While each of those losses had a significant impact on the playoff race, the Rockets may be most troubled by their 99-98 defeat at Sacramento on Tuesday. The 34-40 Kings have been eliminated from playoff contention and had lost four of their previous six games.

"It's tough. You lose a game like this and you don't know what's going to happen," said Rockets coach Rick Adelman, who fell to 0-2 at Arco Arena since being let go by the Kings in 2006. "That is why it is tough for all the teams in the West. This was a brutal loss."

The Rockets hope they have enough time to make their way back up the playoff ladder. The Rockets are in sixth place in the West with eight games remaining, including the next four against West rivals out of the playoff picture.

"We need to make it up somehow," point guard Rafer Alston told the Rockets' official Web site. "We need to get wins just to stay afloat. We have only like eight games left. They are all important."

To get back on track, Houston will likely have to improve its defense - the team's biggest strength during the win streak that lasted nearly seven weeks. The Rockets have gone 3-5 in their eight games since the win streak, allowing opponents to shoot 48.4 percent in that stretch. Their opponents shot just 40.9 percent during the 22-0 run.

"It seems like we are not defending with any sense of urgency," Alston said. "The last two games, teams are just carving us up on defense. Once we start defending, then we can worry about the offense."

The Rockets will try to avoid their first three-game skid since Dec. 15-20 as they take on the Trail Blazers (38-37), who are in danger of falling back to .500 for the first time since they were 12-12 on Dec. 16.

Portland was tied with the Los Angeles Lakers at halftime on Wednesday night before falling 104-91, its fourth loss in five games. The Blazers need to win four of their remaining seven games to finish with a winning record for the first time since 2002-03.

"We want to come out with a winning record," said forward Travis Outlaw, who had 23 points Wednesday.

Staying above .500 could be a challenge with All-Star guard Brandon Roy expected to miss his fourth straight game with a groin injury. The Blazers have lost their last three games without their scoring and assist leader, and are just 1-6 without him.

The Blazers are winless in three meetings with the Rockets, and are hoping to avoid getting swept by them for the second time in four years. Houston won all four meetings between these clubs during the 2004-05 campaign.


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