HOUSTON (CBS Houston) – The Houston Rockets shot up once place to the coveted No.8 spot in the Western Conference Division race on Wednesday night without even being on the court.

They have the Toronto Raptors’ victory Denver to thank.

But we should also expect that to be the last favor the Rockets will receive from anyone as they look to solidify their playoff positioning in these final 15 games remaining in the regular season. With eight teams all bunched up for the final five spots, the race to the playoff line in the West is likely to be a photo finish.

The Rockets (27-24) could cross the finish line ahead of the pack but if their post-All-Star track record is any indication then it will likely be a nose if it all.

Grit and hustle have kept the Rockets in contention all season but it does seem that their lack of star power is catching up to them during this stretch run. They haven’t put together more than two wins in a row since the All-Star break and with leading scorers Kevin Martin (strained right shoulder) and Kyle Lowry (bacterial infection) having missed the last two weeks and no definite return dates on either it just seems the Rockets are in for an uphill battle to remain in contention for one of the final playoff spots.

But there seems to still be plenty of optimism around the team as it gets ready to hit another tough stretch with a home game Friday night against No.6 Memphis (27-21) followed by another home game against Indiana before hitting the road for four straight games with road trips at Chicago and the Los Angeles Lakers next week.

“We have a month and then we are done and then the playoffs start so we’ve got find a way,” said Rockets first-year coach Kevin McHale. “We have to be one of those teams at the end that’s standing. I can’t tell you how we are going to do it every single night but we are going to do it through hard work. We are not a team that can say, `We are just going to ride this guy or ride that guy.’ We’ve just got to do it as a group. Like I said, I’m proud of the guys’ fighting spirit. They are not going to give in. They are not going to make excuses. They are going to go out and play.”

The Rockets have certainly given themselves a chance with the recent additions of Marcus Camby and veteran point guard Earl Boykins to back of Goran Dragic. Their presence along with the much improved play of Courtney Lee, rookie Chandler Parsons and Dragic has renewed the belief the Rockets may be able to break through the playoffs for the first time in three years.

“We’ve got 15 more games left and the best thing about it is we control our own destiny,” Parsons said after practice Thursday. “We have seven more home games and we’ve just got to take it one game at a time. That’s the best thing about it, it doesn’t matter what any other team does in the league. If we want to get to the playoffs it’s up to us.”

But the reality is the Rockets have little margin for error in this ultra tight playoff race. Just 2 /12 games separates them and the fourth-place Los Angeles Clippers but a loss Friday night against Memphis could also put them back on the outside of the playoff race.

In addition to having to face some of the best teams during these final 15 games, the Rockets also must try to remain in the top eight with eight of their games on the road where they are just 8-17 this season.

“Every game counts, we are going to have a lot of road games and you know how we are on the road,” said center Samuel Dalembert. “We’ve got to take care of home first and then we have to go on the road and try to get as many games as we can get to get in position for the playoffs.”

While reaching the playoffs is the goal, it’s almost as if the playoffs have arrived a month early for the Rockets. One day they are in and the next day they are out. The line between the playoffs and the Lottery is ultra thin.

“We’ve got to approach it like it’s the NCAA tournament,” said newly acquitted Marcus Camby. “I know it’s not really one-and-done but that’s the approach we’ve got to take with it because each game going down the stretch is definitely crucial.”

If there is a silver-lining in all of this for the Rockets it is that they are actually in the thick of the race instead of being the team needing teams to lose like they were the last two unsuccessful years. If the Rockets can string together some wins then they can gain some separation.

But if they continue this trend of win two, drop one then in a couple of weeks they will have lost pace with the pack.

“We have to win more games than the other teams,” Parsons said. “We can’t look ahead, we can’t look and see what teams are losing and things like that. We’ve just got to play our game and take it one game at a time.”

But that is obviously easier said than done. Camby, a seasoned veteran, admits that he is doing quite a bit of scoreboard watching these days. It’s probably a little hard to stomach with the playoff positioning changing by the night.

“For me it’s about control what we can control and when we are not playing I’m watching that TV,” Camby said. “I like to know about my surroundings and see what’s going on around the league.

“Toronto helped us out a lot and now we have to take care of business.”

Contact Terrance Harris at terrancefharris@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @Terranceharris


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