It always shocks me that over the course of 82 games, teams could remain so close that it comes right down to the wire, yet virtually every season, that is the case. With Portland and Dallas essentially falling off the map, there are five teams left fighting for the final four spots in the Western Conference playoffs, and the Rockets are one of them.
Currently the Rockets sit in seventh place in the west, two games back of Golden State, one ahead of the LA Lakers and two ahead of the Utah Jazz, the team that visits Toyota Center tonight. A win tonight would all but solidify the Rockets' spot in the playoffs, pushing Utah three games back (more like four when you consider the Rockets would then own the tie-breaker) with 14 to play. It's a big game.
The Rockets could have been even higher in the standings had they not laid a massive egg against Golden State over the weekend, but the Jazz and Lakers both losing Tuesday keeps Kevin McHale's crew in the driver's seat.
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The struggles for the Rockets have come primarily at the power forward spot after they traded away basically their entire rotation at the trading deadline. Rookie Dontas Montejunas has been wildly inconsistent, and recent trade acquisition Thomas Robinson looks lost on the floor with his new team. With Terrence Jones finally getting some practice time with the team -- though clearly not ready to contribute -- and Royce White's hot mess and baby mama drama staying in the Rio Grande Valley for now, this does not look like it will improve before the end of the season.
The Rockets knew the trade would weaken their chances for the playoffs, but they are building for the future and winning now is of secondary importance. Still, even getting booted from the first round would mean experience for a team full of youngsters, and, as anyone who has followed the NBA for any period of time can attest, the playoffs are a completely different beast.
A win tonight would be a confidence-builder and make taking a shot in the first round a lot more likely.