HOUSTON -- In the midst of the adulation and congratulations, Rockets guard James Harden on Sunday night delivered a quote that underscored one of the more pressing challenges of the NBA.
The Rockets had just rallied past the reigning league champion Cleveland Cavaliers, recording a 117-112 victory on national television that offered all the thrills and chills anyone could desire of a potential NBA Finals preview. Yet while the win was signature, Harden immediately understood to keep the reveling brief.
On Wednesday night, Houston (46-21) hosts the struggling Los Angeles Lakers (20-47) at Toyota Center, completing a jarring two-game swing against the best team in the Eastern Conference and the worst in the West.
A loss to the Lakers would essentially negate the positive vibes that carried the Rockets deep into the night Sunday, and Harden recognized that reality and broached it with sincerity.
"We can't have any letups," Harden said. "We've got to be ready to go next game. We've got 15 games left, so every game is an opportunity for us to get better."
The Lakers are the first of five consecutive games for Houston against teams with losing records, an ample opportunity for the Rockets to not only put a stranglehold on the third seed in the West but to also build momentum toward the playoffs. The Rockets have only four remaining games against teams with winning records.
After dropping the season opener to the Lakers in Los Angeles, the Rockets returned the favor with a 134-95 home victory Dec. 7, a game in which Houston led by as many as 42 points. The Lakers' leading scorer that night was reserve guard Lou Williams, who was dealt to the Rockets after the trade deadline.
That loss to Houston was the fourth of an eight-game skid for the Lakers, a streak that erased the hope of a .500 record through the end of November. The Lakers were 10-10 entering December but lost 12 of 13 games. They won consecutive games only once since and arrive in Houston having lost 10 of 11 games to leave them two games behind the Phoenix Suns in the West cellar.
At this late stage of the season, the Lakers are in evaluation mode, a truth punctuated Monday night when coach Luke Walton pulled guard D'Angelo Russell from the starting lineup in favor of Jordan Clarkson in a 129-101 loss at Denver.
The Lakers employ a roster full of promising young prospects but that group has been slow to jell into anything remotely resembling on-court success.
"Unfortunately we didn't get to see what we were trying to look for with J.C. in the starting lineup because of the lack of competing that never really allowed us to fully be engaged in the game outside of the first six or eight minutes," Walton said. "We need to regroup. We've got a helluva game in Houston. It's going to be more challenging than this."