With Tracy McGrady excelling despite an injured shoulder, the Rockets look to at least keep pace in the Western Conference race Sunday night when they face a Clippers team just beginning to work Brand back into its lineup.
Los Angeles (23-53) was left without its top player for the majority of the season when Brand had to have surgery to repair a ruptured left Achilles' tendon suffered in a workout on Aug. 3. The Clippers, who have regressed significantly after finishing two games below .500 last season, have had Brand back the past two games after a 74-game absence.
Houston (51-25), meanwhile, is poised to make the playoffs for the second straight season despite losing Yao Ming (foot) for the season in February. Also, McGrady missed 11 straight games from Dec. 28-Jan. 15 because of a left knee injury and he has been playing through pain since spraining his left shoulder in a win over Sacramento on March 24.
Still, the Rockets are in the hunt for the No. 1 seed in the West, 2 1/2 games behind conference-leading New Orleans, and McGrady's toughness has been a significant catalyst.
McGrady scored 18 of his 25 points in the third quarter as Houston kept pace in the West with a 79-66 victory over Seattle on Friday night.
It was the second straight game McGrady bailed out Houston. On Thursday night, he had 26 points in the second half of a 95-86 win over Portland.
"I'm not normal right now. My shoulder is pretty banged up," McGrady said. "Definitely not normal, but it's something I can play through."
McGrady wore a wrap on the shoulder in the first half against the SuperSonics, but discarded it at halftime because it limited the extension on his shot.
Now, he will try to help the Rockets win their fifth straight road game versus the Clippers. Houston, hoping to improve its playoff position, has six games remaining in the regular season.
"It's fun. We're all basketball fans here," Houston forward Shane Battier said. "But we really don't concern ourselves with who's winning and losing. I want the Rockets to win."
Houston has played its last two games without starting point guard Rafter Alston (hamstring). Alston said he would normally rest longer with the postseason approaching, but hopes to play against Los Angeles with the Rockets' standing in the playoff race far from set.
Brand, meanwhile, took another step in his comeback Thursday night, finishing with 15 points and nine rebounds off the bench in the Clippers' 110-98 loss to Sacramento.
The two-time All-Star had 19 points in his first game back, a 102-84 Los Angeles win over Seattle the previous day.
"It's just timing issues and getting the (plays) down," Brand said.
Los Angeles, which has lost 12 of 14, has been injury-riddled all season.