The Rockets fell to the Golden State Warriors Wednesday night in what could turn out to be the deciding factor for the No. 1 spot in the West. Additionally, it almost assures the Rockets no shot of reaching that mark, which was already unlikely. In other words, very little was decided in the 106-104 loss at Toyota Center Wednesday.
However, while that game ended the Rockets' nine-game winning streak, which has catapulted them into a virtual tie for the third spot in the Western Conference, another win streak may be on the horizon and they will need it.
First, we should clear up some basic info about the playoff standings. At this point, with only 14 games left, the Rockets' most likely battle for positioning comes with Portland and OKC, who all have 46 losses (as of writing this, the Blazers were a half game back by virtue of one fewer win than the other two). They are all a full four games back in the loss column vs. Denver, a very tough number to make up in 14 games.
So, it is safe to assume that the Rockets, Thunder and Trail Blazers will fall three through five in the West. Those three spots could not be more critical to the playoffs. The third seed would not only have home court advantage in at least round one (the four seed would have it as well, but not five), but, assuming Golden State wins the West, it would mean the team in third place wouldn't have to meet up with the defending champs until the Western Conference Finals at the earliest. There is a lot on the line in that positioning.
Fortunately, the Rockets have the advantage. In most cases, in the event of a tie, the record against one another is the deciding factor. Unfortunately, the Rockets lost the season series to Portland and are down in the series with OKC. However, both the Trail Blazers and the Thunder are expected to come in second in their divisions — Golden State should win the Pacific over the Blazers and Denver should win the Northwest over OKC — while the Rockets will coast their way to a Southwest Division title. In that case, the division winner would trump the others regardless of head-to-head match-ups.
Of course, if the Rockets (or Blazers or Thunder) have a better record, all that is rendered unimportant, but given how close the teams have been, particularly recently, a tie would not be a shocker.
There is also the scheduling, which we dissected almost two weeks ago. In fact, the next six games could decide the fate of all three teams.
The Rockets have the easiest schedule: Phoenix, Minnesota, at Atlanta, at Memphis, San Antonio, at New Orleans. Portland is next: at New Orleans, at San Antonio, Indiana, Dallas, Detroit, New Jersey. The Thunder have a murderer's row: at Indiana, Golden State, Miami, Toronto, at Toronto, at Memphis. If that isn't bad enough, they follow that up with home games against Indiana and Denver.
Still, the Rockets have to keep winning. At this point, it would seem the third spot is theirs to lose, but, with 14 games remaining, a lot can happen.