As has been the case over the last few seasons here in Houston, where the Rockets began this season is quite different from where they are with just 25 games remaining before the playoffs. The Rockets have gone deeper into the Daryl Morey and Mike D'Antoni philosophy of threes, free throws and layups than any team ever thought possible, now taking it a step further by adding small ball to the equation.
In fact, progressive franchises across the NBA are following the trend the Rockets began, causing tremendous debate around the league. As the playoffs draw closer, the grand experiment will finally get the ultimate proving ground. Gone are all the perceived impediments to this revolutionary style of play, as the Rockets have fully embraced who they are.
For these last 25 games and into the playoffs, we will get to see first hand how it will work. What's in store should be interesting. Here are four thoughts on the final 25.
The second seed is ripe for the taking.
As of writing this, the Rockets were one game back of the third seed and two-and-a-half back of the two seed. Catching the Lakers seems unlikely at this point, but the Nuggets are another story. Last year, a loss on the final day of the season sent the Rockets from No. 2 to No. 4, so that is fresh in their minds. And the higher they get, the later into the playoffs they will have to meet the Lakers. Expect them to push hard to move up the rankings.
The remaining schedule favors the Rockets.
In the final stretch of 25 games, only nine are against teams over .500. They only have two back-to-backs and both have bad teams in the second half of them. The toughest part of their schedule is behind them even if there are games against the Celtics, Clippers, Lakers, Bucks and Raptors mixed in there. The two teams in front of them have 13 and and 12 of their final 25 against teams with winning records. The Rockets have the clear advantage and must capitalize.
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Working in the newest additions should be a priority.
Perhaps as important as playoff positioning will be getting rotations right. D'Antoni has a long record of short rotations, preferring eight or, at most, nine players in a game, sometimes fewer in the playoffs. With plenty of options now thanks to the additions of Robert Covington, Jeff Green and DeMarre Carroll, the Rockets coach will have plenty of bullets in his gun. Figuring out how to use them all effectively will be a critical as they get to the playoffs.
Small ball can work, but will it?
The Rockets have been one of the best teams in the league since Clint Capela left the lineup and was eventually traded. Everyone expected this would be a very difficult group to guard, but analysts and other teams are recognizing the Rockets swarming defense won't be a picnic either. The chief concern has been matching up against bigger front lines, but Covington and Green, in particular, are much longer than they are tall. They aren't as small as the media guide might indicate. Still, they are going to have to prove that in the heat of the playoffs where everything is magnified and teams work to exploit their opponents' weaknesses over a series. No one knows yet if this will work, but it should be really fun to watch.