As we head into the back end of the NBA regular season schedule, the Houston Rockets sit in third place in the Western Conference. More important in the big picture, they sit as the NBA's most confounding potential contender come playoff time. In other words, we kind of know who everyone else is at this party.
Nobody other than LeBron's team is coming out of the East. It's been that way since 2010; why would it stop now? In the West, we know Golden State is the chalk pick, and we think that San Antonio, on the strength of the Popovich Machine and that front court, is a viable contender. We know that the Clippers, even fully healthy, will find a way to choke, and everybody else is just fodder for a few weeks of television in late April and early May.
Then there are the Houston Rockets, sporting the likely league MVP, a ton of three-point shooting, defense sometimes, and a happy locker room (for a change, at least from last season...HI DWIGHT!).
Are the Rockets the team that got off to a 13-7 start despite 14 road games in that stretch, the same team that won nine in a row during late December and early January, that averaged 131 points per game over a four-game stretch during the holidays?
Or are the Rockets the team that chased that nine-game winning streak with a mediocre 9-9 stretch that looked positively eight-seedish, that can make defense and rebounding look optional at times, and that limped into the All-Star break with a wire-to-wire loss at home to the Miami Heat (a lottery team, if the season ended today)?
For the balance of the regular season, the answer to that question probably doesn't matter. The Rockets are four games behind San Antonio for the No. 2 seed, and four games ahead of the Clippers for the No. 3 seed. Barring a miracle or a disaster, the Rockets WILL be the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, and probably win about 55 games, a fate we'd have all signed up for in a heartbeat back in October.
The question as to who they are when it matters? Well, that will come in May and (hopefully) June. For now, the Rockets (40-18) have 24 games remaining, and they go as follows:
Thursday, February 23 @ New Orleans
Saturday, February 25 vs. Minnesota
Monday, February 27 vs. Indiana
Wednesday, March 1 @ LA Clippers
Saturday, March 4 vs. Memphis
Monday, March 6 @ San Antonio
Wednesday, March 8 vs. Utah
Friday, March 10 @ Chicago
Sunday, March 12 vs. Cleveland
Wednesday, March 15 vs. LA Lakers
Friday, March 17 @ New Orleans
Saturday, March 18 @ Denver
Mon, Mar 20 vs. Denver
Friday, March 24 vs. New Orleans
Sunday, March 26 vs. Oklahoma City
Tuesday, March 28 vs. Golden State
Thursday, March 30 @ Portland
Friday, March 31 @ Golden State
Sunday, April 2 @ Phoenix
Wednesday, April 5 vs. Denver
Friday, April 7 vs. Detroit
Sunday, April 9 @ Sacramento
Monday, April 10 @ LA Clippers
Wednesday, April 12 vs. Minnesota
So there are 13 home games and 11 road games, so that's a bit of good news! Here are a few more observations on the remainder of the Rockets' regular season:
1. Back-to-back relief
The Rockets had 13 back-to-backs through the first 58 games. That seems like a lot. The good news is that they went 12-1 on the back end of those consecutive night flings, an underrated, impressive indicator of this team's vastly improved resolve over last season's Rockets. The better news is that, in the final 24 games, the Rockets only have three back-to-backs. The bad news is that all three are road-road pairings:
March 17/18: @ New Orleans, @ Denver (ALTITUDE!)
March 30/31: @ Portland, @ Golden State (Fun, fun...)
April 9/10: @ Sacramento, @ LA Clippers
2. The Gauntlet
The toughest patch of schedule over the final couple of dozen games is probably beginning next Monday 2/27, in which they play seven straight games against teams currently slotted for the postseason, including a brutal three games in a row against Memphis, at Utah and versus San Antonio. The stretch ends with LeBron's one and only regular season visit to Toyota Center.
3. Strength of schedule
Of the 24 games, 15 of them are against teams that would currently make the postseason, if the season ended today. However, there's one mitigating factor that makes that sound more daunting than it actually is — five of those 15 are against teams that are below .500, including three games against the (for now) No. 8 Denver Nuggets. HOWEVER, there is a schedule oddity looming that MUST be mentioned...
4. The Pelican Situation
...one of those non-playoff teams the Rockets face off against in the other nine games is the retooled New Orleans Pelicans, with their All-NBA front court of Anthony Davis and the recently acquired DeMarcus Cousins, arguably the top two big men in the league today. The Rockets play the Pelicans, who currently sit at 23-34 in the 11th in the West, three times the rest of the way. This is surely a better Pelicans team than it was before the Cousins trade, as they gave up very little that was contributing to this season's "effort" and added the best offensive post player in the league. It's probably safe to start printing playoff tickets in New Orleans, as I think the Pelicans should nab the No. 8 seed.
THAT SAID, I don't think I'd pick them to win a playoff series against any of the seven teams above them in the West right now. This is still a below-average three point shooting team (which just traded one of its better shooters in rookie Buddy Hield) and, until Cousins shows that he can act like a normal, well-adjusted human being for more than, like, three days in a row, I'm not ready to pick a team with a below-average backcourt and below-average shooting with Alvin Gentry as their head coach to do anything noteworthy. Don't get me wrong, this was a good trade (so good, it makes me wonder what the other offers were for Cousins) since New Orleans was going nowhere with Davis as their lone superstar. However, the Pelicans need more than Jrue Holiday in their backcourt to get me excited.
5. Best-case scenario...
...Rockets get through the final 24 games relatively healthy, nab one of those Golden State games as a confidence booster, and shoot the ball like the team that made the holidays so enjoyable. Kawhi Leonard develops tendinitis in his right knee, and Gregg Popovich gets distracted by his side war on Donald Trump. Rockets snag the No. 2 seed and get Crazy Russ in the first round.
6. Worst-case scenario (not involving an injury to James Harden, which would effectively end the season)...
...Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon both give out physically, the burden for Harden becomes last season-esque, and the Rockets fall behind two of the current No. 4 though No. 7-seed teams and find themselves in a road playoff series against Memphis or Utah, two teams that are nightmare matchups for the Rockets in a seven-game series.
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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