To the Rockets, though, every game still matters.
|Complete Playoff Race|
Aaron Brooks scored 10 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter, and Trevor Ariza added 17 in the Rockets' 97-90 win over the Bobcats on Friday night.
Luis Scola and Chase Budinger finished with 12 points each and Ariza delivered eight assists for the Rockets, who've won three in a row since they were eliminated from playoff contention last weekend.
"We've been talking about how we've got to finish strong, we've got to win games," Scola said. "We've got to keep going, three more games."
Gerald Wallace and Boris Diaw scored 18 points apiece for the Bobcats, while leading scorer Stephen Jackson sat out to rest various injuries. Charlotte still clinched no worse than the No. 7 spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs after losses by Chicago and Toronto.
And that means the Bobcats will avoid a first-round matchup with LeBron James and Cleveland, the team with the NBA's best record.
"It doesn't matter who you play," said Bobcats center Tyson Chandler. "Once you get in, it's just an eight-team race. You're going to have to face the Cavs, regardless. If you're trying to get to the championship, you're going to have to face the Cavs."
The Bobcats trailed by eight after three quarters, then opened the fourth with a 15-4 spurt. Wallace scored twice inside and former Texas star D.J. Augustin sank a 3-pointer to make it 78-75 with about 8 minutes left.
Brooks' floater in the lane with 3:15 to go pulled Houston within one. Hughes collided with Kevin Martin on the next possession and referees Derrick Collins and Monty McCutchen called simultaneous fouls - one called a block on Martin, the other whistled Hughes for a charge.
The result was a jump ball between Chandler and Jared Jeffries, won by Charlotte.
"Sometimes, I think that's the way it should go," Houston coach Rick Adelman said. "They both had different calls."
After Raymond Felton missed a jumper, Martin hit a 3 to give the Rockets the lead for good. Brooks swished another 3 with 1:36 to go, Raymond Felton fouled him on the shot and Brooks converted to stretch the lead to six.
Felton scored in the lane, but Jared Jeffries answered with a layup with a minute left. Diaw hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 22 seconds remaining to cut the deficit to 93-90.
Brooks and Kyle Lowry both hit a pair of free throws in the last 15 seconds and Houston beat Charlotte for the eighth time in the last nine meetings.
"We don't have any quitters on our team," Ariza said. "We've got guys who, no matter what the situation is, we're going to come out and play hard. We don't want to embarrass ourselves. We've got a lot of pride."
Early on, the Rockets repeatedly beat the Bobcats down the floor for dunks and layups to build a seven-point lead. But Houston missed eight of its first nine shots from 3-point range and the Bobcats stayed close.
The Rockets led 50-47 at the break. Wallace missed a breakaway layup in the final seconds before the half, and D.J. Augustin couldn't beat the buzzer with a putback.
Houston missed seven of its first nine shots out of halftime, and Larry Hughes' pullup jumper put Charlotte ahead 55-54. Ariza hit two 3s during a 12-5 spurt that gave Houston a 66-60 lead.
The Bobcats mustered only 16 points in the third quarter on 6-for-18 shooting and trailed 71-63 heading to the fourth quarter.
Bobcats F Tyrus Thomas missed his second straight game with a dislocated thumb. ... Diaw has scored in double figures in 27 of his last 31 games. ... The Rockets have outscored their last three opponents in the third quarter by a combined score of 86-66. ... The Rockets signed F Alexander Johnson from the developmental league for the rest of the season and waived F Hilton Armstrong. The 6-foot-11 Armstrong came to Houston as part of the three-team deal that sent Tracy McGrady to New York at the trade deadline. ... The Bobcats have held their opponents below 100 points in 17 of their last 20 games.