There are still 19 games remaining in the Houston Rockets regular season, but the one not-yet-mathematically-clinched thing that we can say with practical certainty is that the Rockets WILL be the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. They trail the Spurs by five games for the No. 2 spot, and are ahead of the Jazz by five games for the No. 3 seed, two buffers on either side that are just too large to overcome/surrender, respectively (barring an injury to James Ha... OK, let's not even go there).
On top of that, in a league where, within the last few weeks, there was a coup to overthrow Jeanie Buss in Los Angeles, DeMarcus Cousins was traded for a song and is now 0-4 in games he's played as a Pelican, Kevin Durant may have suffered a season ending injury, and LeBron's current team is starting fights with LeBron's old team, the Rockets have (thankfully) been bereft of any ancillary drama, as well.
So you're saying removing Dwight Howard from the situation and hiring a real head coach has made them a drama-free contender? Wow, ya don't say...
Four days ago, the Rockets began their toughest six game stretch of schedule this season, which is saying something considering they've had three road trips of five games or more — six playoff teams in six games that flip flop back and forth between home and road, so a relatively sizable chunk of travel for three road games.
And guess what? It's started out swimmingly, with two double digit wins against possible first round playoff opponents, both arriving at about the same offensive output (122 on the road against the Clippers, 123 at home against the Grizzlies) with different complementary pieces helping out future MVP James Harden.
On Thursday, the Rockets played their most impressive game of the regular season in Los Angeles against Clippers team at full strength, smoking them 122-103 in a game where they a) were leading by 30 heading into the fourth quarter, and b) hit 20 three-point shots in the first three quarters (they went 0-13 from three in the fourth, and still won by 19). Patrick Beverley was a beast — 14 points, 12 rebounds, and a +32 rating.
On Saturday against Memphis at home, the outcome was similar with a final score of 123-108. The Rockets were lights out from downtown again (18-42 from three), but this game included some grit and grime from Clint Capela (24 points, 11 rebounds), encouraging considering that the Grizzlies make their living manufacturing grit and grim like they own the factory.
So that's 2-0, so far, on the six game stretch. Here are the remaining games, with accompanying storylines:
Monday, March 6, at SAN ANTONIO
Previous Meetings (1-2):
November 9 at San Antonio, 101-99 (W)
November 12 at home, 106-100 (L)
December 20 at home, 102-100 (L)
Before Kevin Durant's injury, it was a virtual lock that the Rockets were on a collision course with the Spurs in the second round of the playoffs. That's probably still the chalk, although the Warriors are treading on thin ice right now with just a two-game lead over San Antonio for the top seed. That said, the Rockets have to be encouraged by how they've played the Spurs this season in three tight games that have gone down to the final minute. Oddly, the most encouraging of the three might be the second home loss, in which the Rockets had multiple chances to win at the end of regulation, in a game that they shot 6-38 from three point range and still had a double digit lead in the fourth quarter. They need to close stronger, obviously, but they can hang with San Antonio for seven games.
Wednesday, March 8, vs UTAH
Previous Meetings (1-1):
November 19 at home, 111-102 (W)
November 29 in Salt Lake City, 120-101 (L)
The Jazz are leading a four team mosh pit right now for the No. 4 seed, with themselves, the Clippers, the Grizzlies and the Thunder all separated by three games in the standings. If I were stack ranking the teams the Rockets want to see at No. 6, the Jazz might be at the bottom of those rankings, given their length and grit defensively (the STIFLE TOWER, Rudy Gobert!) and a LOUD home floor.
Friday, March 10, at CHICAGO
Previous Meetings (1-0):
February 3 at home, 121-117 OT (W)
The first game between these two was one of the more entertaining games of the campaign, as the Rockets overcame an eight-point deficit with a couple minutes to go in regulation to win in overtime. That game was an underrated fork in the road for this Rockets team, as they had blown a 20-point lead with eight minutes to go the previous night against Atlanta. It pulled the Rockets out of a nosedive and started a 6-1 stretch that got them back on track.
Sunday, March 12, vs CLEVELAND
Previous Meetings (0-1):
November 1 in Cleveland, 128-120 (L)
LeBron, Kyrie, in town on a Sunday night for a nationally televised game, in what could be (COULD, I am stressing COULD) a preview of the NBA Finals. Odds are against it, but there is greater than a zero percent chance it could happen, which almost nobody outside of the Toyota Center thought back in October.
So with no pending coup of the front office (sorry, Lakers fans) and the team all seemingly in lockstep with one another, all that's left to do is get a feel for how the Rockets stack up with the playoff elite and get ready for the No. 3 seed.
The year 2016 seems so far away. Thank God.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.
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