Rather than a symbolic beginning of the season’s stretch drive, the Rockets’ return to practice after the All-Star Game break Monday only reinforced the fact every day until the regular-season finale April 17 is more or less Groundhog Day.

Every day of practice, including the back-to-back sessions Monday and Tuesday, is critical for a young, developing team, and every game, starting with the daunting specter of the Thunder on Friday night at Toyota Center, is an opportunity that must not be squandered.

“About a month ago, it became really clear what we had to do as a team, and we didn’t change anybody in the last four days,” coach Kevin McHale said. “We have to get better defensively, starting with our transition defense, protecting the paint. All the stuff we’ve been working on is a continuation of what we have been working on in the last month.”

The Rockets were at full strength for an evening practice, including All-Star Game reserve guard James Harden, who was the next-to-last player off the court as he works his way back from an ankle injury.

The Rockets lead the Trail Blazers by three games and the Lakers by 3½ games for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, but Harden said the Rockets should be more intent on drawing a bead on the Warriors and Jazz in spots six and seven.

“We can’t continue to linger around the eighth spot,” Harden said. “We have to do a good job of coming off from the beginning against OKC and Brooklyn and Washington and making sure we play our brand of basketball.