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Rockets wary of improving Kings

With the carrot of the third seed in the Western Conference dangling before them as they prepare for the final week of the regular season, the Rockets understand the ramifications of easing off the throttle.

And while they may downplay the significance of postseason seeding, the Rockets realize the benefit of advantageous matchups. On Tuesday at Golden 1 Center, Houston will visit the Sacramento Kings seeking a sweep of the four-game season series and striving to keep the Portland Trail Blazers at bay in the standings. The Rockets have handled the Kings all season, winning by an average of 19 points per game. But what the Kings showcased on Saturday in a 119-108 loss at Toyota Center was eye-catching.

"They've got some young kids that can go," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said. "(De'Aaron) Fox, (Marvin) Bagley (III), (Buddy) Hield and (Bogdan) Bogdanovic - I didn't think they were ever going to miss. They're playing (well). It'll be a tough game on Tuesday, obviously."

The Rockets (49-28) expended significant energy in putting the Kings to bed, and facing their final back-to-back of the schedule with a date against the Los Angeles Clippers upcoming on Wednesday, it would benefit Houston to establish control early in Sacramento and afford its starters some rest during the fourth quarter.

Such a strategy might require guard James Harden to produce another otherworldly stat line. Against the Kings on Saturday, Harden recorded his ninth 50-point game of the season and fifth career 50-point triple-double: 50 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. These performances have become so routine that, even while acknowledging their exceptionality, the Rockets have come to expect them of Harden.

"This was like a quiet triple-double," Rockets guard Eric Gordon said. "He's had a lot of special games like that, and it's been a special year for him."

For the Kings, the final week of the schedule presents an opportunity for bittersweet reflection. Sacramento (38-39) improved by leaps and bounds this season, and the franchise could finish at or above .500 for the first time since 2005-06. Its accumulation of young talent fueled a style of play that not only made the Kings entertaining, it caused headaches for quality opponents.

Still, to get so tantalizing close to reaching the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade only to fall short offered a bitter pill for the Kings to swallow. Sacramento dazzled, but didn't claim the ultimate prize, yielding conflicted emotions for those who labored to elevate the long-dormant organization.

"We have to keep fighting as we grow through the course of the year," Kings coach Dave Joerger said. "There are maybe some times or games where you feel like we should get that one and we lost. There haven't been many of these lately where we were not favored, or definitely an underdog, and we're not knocking those teams off. We've been close, but as we continue to grow that's where we have to grow and catch some of these teams on some nights."

The Kings caught the Spurs on Sunday, winning 113-106 in San Antonio in the second game of a back-to-back. Sacramento, already resigned to its fate, still played with vigor against a Spurs squad jostling for playoff position. That effort was emblematic of where the Kings are headed, even if the present stings.

"Right now it's not in our favor, and maybe next year it'll be in our favor," Hield said. "It's like life: you're never going to get it how you want it. You always go through ups and downs, and right now this is a down."

--Field Level Media

Updated April 1, 2019

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