Photo by Groovehouse
This Rockets team, it just sneaks up on you. It's loaded with second- and third-tier players, most of whom would be backups (albeit rotation players) on good teams. They struggle with interior defense and have an unproven coach who was once a hated rival. They lost their entire starting backcourt, arguably their two best players, for over a month. And yet, here we are, ten games from the end of the season and the pro basketball team that plays in the Toyota Center is a near lock for the playoffs.
After beating Portland Wednesday night, they completed a four-game road sweep that included wins over Chicago and the Lakers. Before they left, I was listening to local sports talk and the consensus was they needed to win two games on the swing, but even three was probably wishful thinking.
Now, with just those ten games remaining, they are seven games over .500 for the first time all season. They just started getting Kyle Lowry back from his battle with a bacterial infection (ack!) and are still missing Kevin Martin. But, without those two, Goran Dragic and Courtney Lee have blossomed. It's not that much of a surprise with Lee, who is probably the best wing defender on the team -- though forward Chandler Parsons is giving him a run for his money. But, Dragic just won the Western Conference Player of the Week award. Seriously. Oh, and the "you know you are playing really well when" moment of the road trip came when Marcus Camby hit his second three-pointer in the last four games. Go figure.
Tonight's game against Utah is critical, however, as is their final stretch of games. The Jazz are still battling to stay in the playoff chase and the Rockets, with a win, could own the tiebreaker with them and virtually knock them out of the hunt, leaving four teams -- the Rockets, Denver, Dallas and Phoenix -- to battle for three remaining spots.
In the final ten, the Rockets face Utah followed by Phoenix on Friday, a home-and-home back-to-back against Denver Sunday and Monday and a trip to Dallas to face the Mavericks Wednesday. To say the next seven days are crucial to the Rockets' season would be putting it mildly.
At the moment, they sit in the sixth spot and would face the Lakers were they to start the playoffs tomorrow. They don't and could go anywhere from probably the fourth spot, though unlikely, to out of the playoffs. Given that an opener against the Thunder or Spurs would be a tough matchup, the team needs to keep on winning.
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After this next week, they finish up with two games against the Hornets, one against Golden State and a game at Miami, where it is possible they'll be resting starters for the playoffs. It's a safe bet they could go 4-1 in those final five. Anything over .500 in the preceding five games would almost certainly give them a playoff berth and perhaps even a decent seed.
Like this entire season, the professional basketball team that plays at the Toyota Center continues to surprise everyone. Maybe if they make the playoffs, people will start remembering who they are.