The Houston Rockets are falling way short of expectations this season, especially when it comes to playoff positioning and potentially contending for an NBA championship. However, the Rockets have been playing much better as of late and have found themselves in a good position to push their way up the Western Conference standings and improve their chances to get a more favorable matchup in the first round.
Prior to Wednesday’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Rockets are tied with in-state rivals – the Dallas Mavericks – for the seventh seed in the Western Conference at a record of 34-33 (the Rockets currently hold the tie-breaker). The Portland Trail Blazers also have 33 losses, but have played and won one more game than both Dallas and Houston. If the Rockets and Mavericks win really tough games against the Clippers and Cavaliers, respectively, on Wednesday, then there would be a three-way tie for sixth place with fourteen games left in the 2015-2016 season.
Of the three teams, the Rockets have been playing the best in the last seven games (despite Portland being one of the hottest teams in the league since January) by winning five of them – three of which were on the road. Portland and Dallas, comparatively, have only won two of their last seven.
Unfortunately for Rockets fans, Houston might have the toughest schedule in the last fourteen games of the season. Tough games against the Clippers, Cavaliers, Raptors, Pacers, and two against the Thunder are on the horizon for James Harden and company. However, the Rockets close the season out on a favorable five-game stretch that includes playing in Dallas and Minnesota, and playing the Suns, Lakers, and Kings in Houston. Aside from Dallas, the Rockets will be playing four of the five worst teams in the league.
The Dallas Mavericks broke a five game losing streak on Monday, but have lost seven of the twelve games they have played since the All-Star break. It seems as though this slide is indicative of the Mavericks regressing to their preseason predictions of being a worse team than last season and potentially missing the playoffs altogether. It doesn’t get any easier for Mark Cuban’s team as their next five games include the Cavaliers on Wednesday and both the Trailblazers and the historic Golden State Warriors twice after that. Following that dreadful stretch, their schedule gets lighter, but closes out strong as they’ll have a likely important game against the Rockets followed by games against the Clippers and Spurs (who may be resting players at that point).
Next week will be significant for these three teams because the Rockets will have three tough games, but perhaps more importantly, the Mavericks and Blazers will play each other twice in four days. How either team performs in that stretch could shift the bottom half of the Western Conference standings – whether that means the Blazers and Mavericks stay somewhat stagnant, the Mavericks climb higher in the standings, or the Blazers solidify their place in the sixth seed and push the Mavs further down the standings.
Another interesting team in this playoff race is the injury-decimated Memphis Grizzlies, who currently hold a five to six game lead on the teams they’re in front of. It may be too little, too late for any of the Rockets, Blazers, or Mavericks to snatch that fifth seed from the Grizzlies, but with major injuries to their best players, it’s not inconceivable that Memphis could fall that far.
These teams control their own playoff destinies in the last month of the regular season, and should focus on doing what they need to do to win games. It will likely be hard, however, not to focus on the standings and how other teams are performing, as this race will be fun to follow. The path to the NBA Finals will go through San Antonio or Golden State, but for these flawed teams it’s better to put off those gladiator contests until as late as possible. The problem with that mentality, however, is that fighting for a higher seed to play against the Oklahoma City Thunder or Los Angeles Clippers instead of the Spurs or Warriors may only delay the inevitable.
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