HOUSTON -- Even the Houston Rockets acknowledge they've had some good luck during their 21-game winning streak. They are getting more heading into their biggest regular-season game in years.
Pau Gasol will sit out with a sprained left ankle when the Rockets play the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday for first place in the Western Conference. Gasol was injured in Friday's loss to New Orleans and left the arena on crutches.
X-rays were negative, but the Lakers said the 7-foot Gasol will miss the Lakers' remaining three games of a four-game road trip, at a minimum. Gasol has averaged 19 points and eight rebounds since coming to Los Angeles from Memphis.
"Obviously, we can't run as many low-post opportunities as we had when Pau was here," Kobe Bryant said after practice on Saturday. "We've got to change it up."
Earlier in the Rockets' streak, now the second-longest in NBA history, they got to play New Orleans without David West (sprained ankle) and Dallas without Dirk Nowitzki (one-game suspension). They've also beaten 12 opponents with losing records.
The Rockets aren't apologizing for anything.
"I take solace in the fact that we are the luckiest team in, maybe, the history of NBA basketball," Rockets forward Shane Battier said. "If that's our distinction, that's fine by us."
Of course, Houston has been playing without Yao Ming, sidelined with a stress fracture in his left foot on Feb. 26. That hasn't mattered yet -- the Rockets have won nine straight games without him. Houston has also won its last four games without rookie forward Carl Landry, who provided valuable scoring and rebounding when Yao first got hurt. Landry has a bruised right knee and won't play Sunday, either.
The Rockets still have won 30 of their last 33 games, vaulting from the No. 10 spot in the West to a tie for first in just over two months.
"It's really unexplainable," said Tracy McGrady, who's averaged 26 points since Yao went out. "This is an inspirational season for this team. If we can keep it going, it would be one of the finer accomplishments of my career."
Houston beat Charlotte 89-80 on Friday to break a tie with the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks for the second-longest victory streak in league history. Only the 1971-72 Lakers, who won 33 in a row, are ahead of the Rockets.
Television analysts and columnists keep saying Houston still has little chance of advancing deep in the playoffs without Yao.
Bryant's 1999-2000 Lakers squad won 19 straight games on its way to the NBA championship. He dismisses skeptics who say the Rockets' streak is counterfeit.
"People who say that are the same people who said me scoring 81 was nothing because we played against the Toronto Raptors," Bryant said. "It has to have meaning. Every team in the NBA is a tough team. Any time you beat an NBA team or you go on a 21-game winning streak, that's absolutely amazing."
Lakers coach Phil Jackson guided the Chicago Bulls through an 18-game win streak in 1995-96, the season the Bulls finished 72-10. He also admires the Rockets' feat.
"There are so many different things that go into this," Jackson said. "We had a streak going once and Michael Jordan got thrown out of a ballgame and suspended for the next ballgame. There's all kinds of things that go into making streaks.
"It's really a continuity of energy," Jackson said. "They're doing a really good job of that."
The Lakers won 16 of 18 games in February and early March, but they've lost two of their last three.
Bryant said Los Angeles should study how the Rockets are winning -- by chasing down loose balls, deflecting passes and playing with more energy than every opponent.
"This is a team that plays really hard," Bryant said. "They do a lot of the hustle plays, do a lot of the dirty work. That's something we have to learn how to do in terms of winning the hustle points, taking charges and things that don't show up in the box score."
McGrady said Sunday's matchup could be the biggest regular-season game in his four seasons with Houston. He believes the Rockets can go into every game thinking not about the streak, but pushing closer to a favorable postseason seed.
"We're playing for first place," said the seven-time All-Star. "We accomplished what we wanted to accomplish as far as standing alone in second place or winning 21 straight games. Now, we can concentrate on trying to seed ourselves in the playoffs faster."