So I'm in the middle of a project right now that involves the Rockets' 1995 NBA champions, and along the way, I've been conversing with several members of the team who played, coached and covered the team. It's been fun, in large part because that team did something historical.
They won the NBA title from the six seed!
When you're an underdog like that, every series win feels like a combination of euphoria and house money. It's awesome. That said, I'd prefer that I never have to root for a Rockets team in the six seed again, and especially not this season. Of course, naturally, the Rockets currently sit in the two seed with only two games separating them from the dreaded (yet morbidly fun) six seed.
So what's in store the rest of the season and what do they need to do in order to lock up the two seed in the Western Conference? Let's take a look...
First, here are the Western Conference standings as of late last night:
1. GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS .. 63-14 2. HOUSTON ROCKETS -- 53-24 3. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES .. 52-25 4. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS .. 50-27 5. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS .. 53-26 6. SAN ANTONIO SPURS -- 52-26 7. DALLAS MAVERICKS -- 46-31 8. NEW ORLEANS PELICANS .. 42-35 9. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER .. 42-36
One quick observation -- for a fan, it sucks that it's going to come down to an either/or situation in having Anthony Davis or Russell Westbrook in the postseason. Personally, I'd much rather watch two of the top five players in the league try to do the "one-man wrecking crew" thing than watch the Mavericks' dysfunctional, uninspiring, overpaid crew bow out in five games.
Which brings me to the importance of what the Rockets are playing for here. The lines have clearly been drawn in the Western Conference for the first round. Golden State will deal with whoever wins out in the Davis/Westbrook de facto "play-in feel" this week. Portland will be the four seed because of the NBA seeding rules and the fact that they play in a garbage division. Dallas will be the seven seed.
This leaves the Rockets in a four-team race with Memphis, the Clippers and San Antonio in which the four teams are separated by a game and a half. The stakes, and the difference in potential postseason fortunes, are monumental. The winner gets home court guaranteed for the first two rounds of the playoffs, and gets the ready-to-be-killed Mavs in the first round.
The loser gets one of the other three teams on the road to start the playoffs, out of the sixth seed. Yeah, that magical sixth seed. Nineteen ninety-five was fun, but I don't want to have to do that again. Here are the remaining schedules for each of the four teams:
2. Houston Rockets (53-24) Wed, Apr 8 @ San Antonio Fri, Apr 10 vs San Antonio Sun, Apr 12 vs New Orleans Mon, Apr 13 @ Charlotte Wed, Apr 15 vs Utah
3. Memphis Grizzlies (52-25) Wed, Apr 8 vs New Orleans Fri, Apr 10 @ Utah Sat, Apr 11 @ Los Angeles Mon, Par 13 @ Golden State Wed, Apr 15 vs Indiana
5. Los Angeles Clippers (53-26) Sat, Apr 11 vs Memphis Mon, Apr 13 vs Denver Tue, Apr 14 @ Phoenix
6. San Antonio Spurs (52-26) Wed, Apr 8 vs Houston Fri, Apr 10 @ Houston Sun, Apr 12 vs Phoenix Wed, Apr 15 @ New Orleans
1. The Rockets' target should be 4-1, which would be a split of the Spurs' games, and then taking care of business in three games in which they will be favored by at least five or six points. This sets up Friday as maybe the home game of the year, considering the opponent (Spurs) and the stakes (virtual clinching of something good).
2. Boy, did the schedule maker screw Memphis. That team's most important regular season game of the year is Saturday in LA against the Clippers, and for the Grizz it will be their third game in four nights. For the Clippers, they will be coming off three days of rest, and prior to that a home and home against the Lakers (which is actually the same home court that the Clips use...and the Lakers blow). So the Clippers will have basically had like a week off before that game.
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3. Not just that, but man, did the Grizz catch a tough stretch to close out -- a motivated Pelicans team, a road trip to Utah (not easy), the aforementioned Clippers game, a road trip to Golden State and a close-out against a Pacers team that might be playing for a playoff spot and now has Paul George. So...
4. ...when it comes to the division race and the two seed that goes with it, the Spurs are actually the much bigger threat to the Rockets, in large part because of the two head-to-head games tonight and Friday. Let's play it out under a scenario where the Spurs win out (including two wins over the Rockets), and the Rockets win out over everyone but the Spurs (a highly feasible scenario). This would give the two teams identical 56-26 records, with the Spurs winning the tie breaker with a 9-7 division record against the Rockets' 8-8 division record, and the Spurs getting spoon-fed the Mavs in Round One of the postseason.
The moral of the story is if you're ready for playoff basketball, then start rooting tonight for the Rockets to beat the Spurs like the playoffs have started. Because in a way, they kind of have.