After 80 games, a few teases of sound basketball against good teams, and a whole lot more exasperating blown leads, the Rockets' 2015-16 season heading into Monday night boiled down to five games, two of which involved them.
The NBA's Western Conference standings heading into Monday night looked like this:
7. Dallas 41-39
8. Utah 40-40
9. Houston 39-41
The remaining schedule looked like this:
HOU at MIN
DAL at UTAH
SAC at HOU
DAL at SAS
UTAH at LAL
While the Rockets held all the tiebreakers against both Dallas and Utah, the fact of the matter is that they needed help as of Monday night in order to make the postseason, help on top of the part that had become most difficult of late for them — actually winning their own basketball games.
On paper, Monday night looked mildly treacherous with the Rockets traveling to Minnesota to take on a young Minnesota team that was playing decent basketball of late, 9-9 in their last 18 games, and needing Dallas to beat the Jazz in Utah in order to give the Rockets the best chance at making the playoffs, assuming the Rockets won their last two games (not a given).
As it turns out, in an ironic twist at the tail end of a season gone wildly wrong, the Rockets got one of their most complete efforts of the season in beating the Wolves, 129-105, while the Mavericks, a seven point underdog in Utah, knocked off the Jazz, 101-92, to clinch a playoff spot and push Utah to the edge of elimination.
The Rockets jumped out to a 17 point lead at the end of the first quarter Monday night and never looked back in trouncing the Wolves soundly. With practically zero margin for error, the Rockets got the effort they've been paying for all year from James Harden and Dwight Howard, with Harden scoring 34 points in about three quarters of play and Howard notching 19 points and 8 rebounds. For all the talk of the Wolves' young core, their two best players — Rookie of the Year favorite Karl Anthony-Towns and last year's winner Andrew Wiggins — each finished with just 12 points apiece.
Meanwhile, in Utah, the Mavericks somehow clinched a playoff berth with a rotation of point guards that reads "Deron Williams, J.J. Barea, Raymond Felton" and Zaza Pachulia as their center. They beat the Jazz in Utah 101-92, and now the Jazz need help from the Sacramento Kings in order to make the playoffs, which is like relying on Johnny Manziel for a sober ride home at 2:00 a.m.
So now the Rockets need only to win at home against the Kings on Wednesday night and they will be in the playoff dance, although considering it will be as an eight seed against the likely regular season win record breaking Golden State Warriors, it will be like dancing with pipe cleaners for legs. If the Rockets do make the playoffs, then their first round draft pick will go to the Denver Nuggets as part of the Ty Lawson trade, so an argument can be made that the Rockets might be better off in the long run missing the playoffs, keeping the pick, and not being subjected to an abject embarrassment in the first round of the playoffs against Steph Curry and the Warriors.
However, if you're wondering where the Rockets' management team stands on the "Should we root for them to win?" topic....
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One more W!— Daryl Morey (@dmorey) April 12, 2016
The Rockets and Kings tip off at 7:00 p.m. Wednesday night.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.