Sizing Up Houston's Playoff Possibilities

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Whither the playoffs? As the NBA season approaches the end, playoff seeds and matchups loom large. For the Houston Rockets, their location in the mix is nearly ironclad: they sit in the third seed, and there they shall remain. The rest of the Western Conference, however, is a swirling sea of uncertainty, leaving Houston’s destiny and matchups a question mark. What scenarios might play out? Which ones are more likely? Which ones should Houston prefer? Let’s look at each opponent, and when the Rockets might have to face them, starting at the top.

The Golden State Warriors

Until a couple weeks ago, there looked to be no chance the Warriors would slide out of the best record in the NBA. Then, one Kevin Durant bone bruise later, they were briefly tied with the San Antonio Spurs and are currently a mere two losses up on the Spurs and don’t currently have the tiebreaker. The what-ifs didn’t matter until that moment, but now they’re a hard question, and it’s all about Durant.

The big issue is that Durant’s return timetable is still unclear. He will be re-examined at the end of March, but until then we don’t know much of anything. He may return soon and be back up to form, or he may take longer, or be less than 100% for the remainder of the season and playoffs. The only thing that seems likely is that the Warriors would be more vulnerable early rather than late. If that’s the case, one might prefer to play them sooner rather than later, in the hopes that they have less than a complete Kevin Durant.

On the other hand, it may be that the difference between a weaker and stronger Warriors team is at that point academic, as they either have Durant back by then and even with half of him, they’re too good, or the other players arrange themselves to remain heavy favorites. It’s quite unclear whether the Rockets would prefer a second-round matchup in the 2-3 or a potential conference finals berth with more chances for Golden State to get knocked off before then. The Warriors would have to go through exactly one of the Jazz, Clippers, Grizzlies or Thunder on the way to meeting Houston either way, so it’s largely a wash unless more information arises.

This is made more complicated by the fact that the Rockets still have two games remaining against the Warriors, which can make the whole difference in a playoff race this tight. Theoretically the Rockets could rest players in these games and allow the Warriors to climb back up to the top seed. However, if the Rockets are the better team at that time, it bodes ill for the Warriors, and they may be better faced earlier. In the end, it’s all moot, as Houston wants to lose if they can’t win, and they want to win if they can. Expect these machinations to be discussed but not mattering for the actual teams involved.

The San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs are the opposite number to the Warriors, in that they will necessarily grab whichever top-2 seed the Warriors don’t. The Rockets don’t play the Spurs again, so there are no shenanigans to be had, either. With the LaMarcus Aldridge heart situation seemingly resolved, they don’t have any injury concerns either.

The Spurs are harder to read than the Warriors because their ceiling isn’t as high but their floor is higher. They don’t seem vulnerable to the Jazz-Clippers-Grizzlies-Thunder tier, but they also don’t seem as immune to the Rockets. Which round the Rockets potentially meet the Spurs in may have little difference for Houston, as the Rockets likely feel like they can go to-to-toe with San Antonio in any event.

It’s possible the Spurs may have a poor matchup with the Clippers due to their athletic center in DeAndre Jordan, but it’s hard to do anything beyond speculate broadly. The Rockets haven’t faced the Spurs in the playoffs since Tim Duncan joined the team, and there’s a very real shot they don’t this year, either.

Utah Jazz

Being scared of the Utah Jazz is the new fashion in the Rockets commentariat, and it’s for good reason. In two of the three meetings between these teams, the Jazz have looked like the better team, and it wasn’t even particularly close. Their combination of rim protection, conservative offense, and young talent makes them a tough out for anyone, and for Houston they’re a nightmare. While they aren’t as scary as a full strength Warriors, this is a team best avoided if at all possible for Houston.

The good news here is that it’s extremely unlikely that the Rockets will end up facing the Jazz. They have a stranglehold on the 4th seed right now, meaning that if these two teams were to meet, it would be in the Western Conference Finals. That’s a good outcome for both of those teams, to say the least. In order to meet before then, the Jazz would have to fall below 5th. Even if the Jazz were to take the 3rd seed from Houston, they couldn’t meet until the conference finals. The only way they could climb to an early round matchup with Houston would require basically impossible scenarios, such as the Jazz grabbing the 1 spot, or the Spurs/Warriors falling to the 4.

The only one of these worth worrying about even a little is for the Jazz to fall to 6th or 7th seed. At 6th they would become Houston’s first round opponent, which is the worst case for Houston. At 7th they would be likely to lose to the 2 in the first round before potentially facing Houston in the second. Neither is likely, but the first round matchup is far scarier. Without any games remaining between them, however, the Rockets just have to wait and see.

Los Angeles Clippers

The Los Angeles Clippers are the team the Rockets seem the most irrationally unafraid of. The universe in general seems to have a grudge against this squad, with injuries and poor luck striking time and again. When they’re whole, the Clippers are an amazing team, and it’s quite likely some poor team will be reminded of that fact in the first round. The Rockets just need to hope it isn’t them.

The good news is that, like the Jazz, the Clippers won’t be competing for that 3rd spot in the west. Unlike the Jazz, however, it’s entirely possible that the Clippers could fall to the 6th, making Houston that unlucky first round opponent. The team likely wouldn’t be too concerned about this, but might lose anyway. A healthy Clippers team is nothing to scoff at.

If the Clips fell below the 6th, they would become a second-round potential, which is a lot easier to palate. One of the Spurs, Warriors and Clippers taking care of each other would make Houston’s path a lot easier. Oddly, Houston may have some hard choices to make when they play the Clippers on April 10th, the second to last day of the season. If the Clips have a chance to lock up the 5 seed at that time, it may be in Houston’s benefit to lose and allow them to do so. Like the Warriors, however, this is a situation in which you want the outcome you were heading toward anyway, but moreso. If the Clippers are very beatable on April 10th, chances are they’ll still be vulnerable about a week later.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Russell Westbrook makes it hard to calculate anything about the Oklahoma City Thunder. He’s one of the leading candidates for NBA MVP, and the main reason why is that triple-double he averages. It’s not only a very pretty number, but it’s also a necessary contribution for his team to keep treading water. The narrative is currently that his team is a pile of duds and rely on him for everything. This is obviously overstating the point, but it’s not exactly wrong. They’ve played everyone tougher than they have any right to, and they’re within spitting distance of the Clippers for the fifth seed.

The numbers show a team that’s eminently beatable in the playoffs: their defensive rating is a mere 0.4 better than Houston’s, while Houston leads them by 7.7 on the offensive end (both as measured by The Rockets are easily the better team and they should definitely win this matchup.

Every game these two teams play, however, is amazingly close. It isn’t even a case of the Rockets missing open shots, or the Thunder hitting every heat check. Westbrook seems to be able to will the Thunder into a tight game with the Rockets, or any other team, any time he wants. What irreplaceable resource he is expending to fuel these runs is, so far, unknown. Perhaps he can keep this level of effort forever. Perhaps the Rockets have played the Thunder as hard as they’re able. This should be a one-sided matchup, but Russell Westbrook seems to grant his team supernatural abilities fairly often. The Rockets probably aren’t scared, and they shouldn’t be, and they’re probably, hopefully right.

Memphis Grizzlies

Currently hanging out in the seventh seed, the Memphis Grizzlies are having trouble holding onto the rope. It’s true that they beat the Rockets twice in the regular season, and it’s very true that they go toe to toe with great teams all the time. It’s also true that they seem unable to consistently beat lesser opposition and their injuries and age seem to be catching up with them. It’s unclear whether David Fizdale’s status as a first-year head coach matters to their situation, if Chandler Parsons’s inability to stay healthy is the main issue, or if it’s simply a matter of the rest of the west outpacing them as Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley begin to wear down. It’s probably a combination of all three, and that’s scary for the Grizzlies.

Unless they can step it up, they’re consigned to a fate of being smashed by either the Warriors or the Spurs, and stand approximately no chance against either. If they were to go on a run and grab the 6th spot, they would have a much better shot against Houston, to be sure. The Rockets would also be sharpening their knives. In a surprisingly tough field of teams Houston might meet in the first round, the Grizzlies are likely the least threatening. It’s important to note that this team is still scary as far as first round opponents go, and if they can pull it together, they have the potential to drag the Rockets down into the mire and get them to lose at Memphis’ game.

When the Rockets shoot poorly from deep, the Grizzlies have a chance. The question, then, is whether or not they can manufacture this circumstance. Their regular season meetings give some hope to this hypothetical, but not as much as they would like. Both teams would feel good about their chances in this series, but Houston would definitely be favored.

Everyone Else

The Rockets have a vanishingly small chance of facing any of the Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Dallas Mavericks or New Orleans Pelicans in the playoffs. While it’s mathematically possible, it would require a catastrophic drop from multiple teams to coincide with a deific win streak from one of these teams, or would mean one of them beat the top seed in the first round, which is probably even less likely.

There’s not a lot that’s markedly clear about Houston’s playoff run in a mere month, but we do know a couple things: they’ll have the third seed, and they won’t play anyone currently below the 7th seed in the standings. Everything else? We’ll just have to watch how this chaotic conference shakes out.

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