Conference leaders Rockets, Raptors collide

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TORONTO — One winning streak will end Friday night in a meeting between conference leaders at the Air Canada Centre.

The Houston Rockets (51-13), who are first in the Western Conference, have a more impressive winning streak at 17 games on the line after defeating the Bucks 110-99 on Wednesday in Milwaukee.

The Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors (47-17) have quietly built a six-game winning streak that includes a 121-119 overtime win over the Pistons on Wednesday in Detroit. The Raptors clinched a postseason spot with the victory in which guard DeMar DeRozan scored 42 points.

The Raptors look forward to challenging the Rockets on their home court after defeating the Rockets 129-113 on Nov. 14 in Houston.

“We know they are one of the best teams in the league,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “We feel like we’re one of the top teams. It’ll be a good test for us. I’m hoping we have a hot gym, (the fans) get so excited that they make it a hostile situation for Houston.”

The Raptors were supported by a strong Canadian contingent for their game in Detroit.

“I loved it,” Casey said. “It felt like we were at home. My hats off to the fans. They presented themselves and they helped us when times were tough.”

The Rockets have a devastating guard combination in Chris Paul and James Harden. They become particularly tough when the game is on the line as they showed again Wednesday when the Bucks cut the lead to five points.

“We somewhat simplify it,” Paul said. “We know where different guys like the ball and most of the time it’s me or James doing the same thing we’ve been doing the rest of the game. We make the right play. If a guy helps, we kick it to the corner or wherever it may be. But we play the way that we play.”

Said Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni: “A lot of times it takes two, three years of learning how to close teams out best and all that. But these players, they want to get it done now.

They’re talking all the time: ‘What’s the best way to do this? What’s the best way to guard that?’ They’ve kind of figured out offensively who they can pick on and who they want to try to go to, who has the hot hand.”

The Rockets also have depth.

“You want to have some consistency,” Rockets forward Luc Mbah a Moute said. “It prepares you for when stuff happens. I think at the end of the day, you want consistency to know how you play, who you play with.

“So far, this season has been kind of hectic. There is always someone out. At the beginning, Chris (Paul) was out. We’ve been able to fill in with other guys. I want to say it prepares us better. It’s good for us in general. I like to have more consistency, but I guys you can say it prepares us if something happens.”

Rockets swingman Joe Johnson missed his second straight game because of illness Wednesday.

The Raptors also showed their depth Wednesday.

Forward OG Anunoby missed his fourth straight game with a sprained ankle.

Forward Serge Ibaka was ejected from the game in the second quarter and guard Delon Wright left during the first half with a sprained right toe that was sustained in the home game against the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday. Both are considered questionable to play Friday.

Raptors struggling swingman Norman Powell, who started at small forward for the second time in four games, came up with one of his strongest games of the season with 17 points. Powell had totaled 16 points in his previous 10 games.

“I control the effort I put in, how hard I work,” Powell said. “Just leave the rest on the floor and see what happens. If it doesn’t go that way, you just keep fighting, keep looking at the big picture, and plugging away at it. Long season, long career, you know?”

In the first meeting, DeRozan scored 27 points and the Raptors built a big first-half lead. Harden had 38 points and made 19 of 19 foul shots for the Rockets, whose six-game winning stopped with that loss.