Fortunes change quickly in the NBA. A 20-point lead, something rarely overcome in the low-scoring '90s, is now about four minutes of good shooting and defense away from a deficit. The same can be said of the standings. Even the shortest of losing streaks can take a team from home court advantage in the playoffs to the draft lottery, particularly in the hyper competitive Western Conference.
Last week, the Rockets were flying high having rebounded from a tough road trip to win five straight, all but solidifying their position as the four seed in the Western Conference playoff picture, particularly with Portland floundering, losers of three in a row. But, things change.
With Patrick Beverley sidelined for at least a couple weeks -- presumably nearly all remaining nine games on the schedule -- and Dwight Howard resting a sore ankle he's been nursing for a while, the Rockets could be limping towards the playoffs while the Trailblazers, one spot behind in the playoff chance and the accepted first round opponent of the Rockets, surging.
Slim margins have a way of creeping up on you.
Fortunately, the Rockets have built a cushion. There is certainly no danger of them falling out of the playoff race though, mathematically, it is possible even this late in the season, something we saw happen to this team in 2012 when they dropped a bunch of games in the stretch run and ended up in the lottery. That was before James Harden and Howard and Chandler Parsons was just a rookie. But, their advantage in the chase for home court is razor thin.
The standings say they are one-and-a-half games up on Portland for the four seed, but the more telling number is losses where they are three full losses ahead. Additionally, they own the tiebreaker over the Blazers giving them essentially a four-game buffer with nine games to go.
The remaining schedule also favors Houston with only three of the final nine games against playoff teams. The Blazers only have six games remaining and half of them are against teams in the postseason or fighting to get there. That doesn't seem like a path to home court advantage for Portland, but stranger things have happened, particularly when injuries are involved.
The Rockets overcame a ton of early-season injuries and went on a tear beginning in January. Coach Kevin McHale told anyone who would listen that he felt they could be good if they were healthy. He was right. Unfortunately, they aren't healthy again. The good news is Beverley won't miss the playoffs, his torn meniscus not needing surgery that would sideline him until next year. The bad news is he and Howard continue to have to sit while the Rockets fight to keep the home court advantage alive.
It certainly makes the final playoff drive more interesting. As fans of the Rockets know, anything can happen and the last thing fans want to see is a repeat of 2012, but a four-game-in-the-loss-column lead can dry up like 20-point lead in the third quarter. That's what makes the NBA so exciting and these final games so nerve wracking.
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