In a bizarre final two nights to the NBA regular season, a complex set of scenarios, each more improbable than the next, all happened...at least for a few minutes at a time. The Rockets coughed up a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter at Oklahoma City. Less than an hour prior, the Denver Nuggets lost at Utah. Finally, in the wee hours, the Portland Trailblazers hit a buzzer beater to win over the Lakers.
When the Nuggets lost, had the Rockets held onto their lead, they would be the two seed in the West, or had the Blazers missed that last-second shot, same thing. Instead, the Rockets had to wait on Wednesday night's games to determine their fate.
That took a while. Portland, not wanting to wind up in third (for reasons we will soon explain), rested all their players save six. It seemed clear they were going to lose on purpose and they were trailing Sacramento at home. But, out of nowhere, their bench came back and the inexplicably won. Meanwhile, Denver had to score 14 straight points to end the game and get a win against the Timberwolves at home to preserve their two seed. Had they lost, Rockets were back in business at two.
As it all worked out, the Rockets dropped to fourth, Denver stayed where it was in second and the Blazers wind up where they didn't want to be, in third. Why? Because they face the sixth seeded Oklahoma City Thunder, clearly the most intimidating matchup of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
For the Rockets, landing second place would have been ideal matching them up with the Spurs, who are a shell of their former glorious selves. On the other hand, fourth ain't so bad.
Their matchup is Utah, a team that the Rockets have beaten routinely in the playoffs. Additionally, the Rockets high-powered offense presents real problems for the Jazz. Not so in the case of OKC, had the Rockets wound up third.
But the biggest worry for fans is that by finishing fourth, were the Rockets to win the first round series, they would be matched with the Golden State Warriors in round two. In second or third, they could put that off until the Western Conference Finals. That seems overblown, to be honest. If the Rockets are going to win their first title since the '90s, they will have to go through the Warriors at some point. They won't have home court advantage no matter which round they meet them in and the challenge will be the same regardless.
Besides, there are no moral victories when it comes to winning in the playoffs. If the Rockets lose in the semifinals this year, it will be just as big a disappointment as it was last year when they lost in the Conference Finals. Taking on the Warriors, at this point, appears an inevitability. Better sooner than later. After all, last year, Chris Paul didn't get hurt until the Conference Finals. Maybe meeting the Warriors in the semis means a healthy Paul and a better chance of winning. Or early vacation. Win win.