Keep Hope Alive: Rockets Meandering Along Toward the Playoffs
All year, I've repeatedly said that following the Rockets is like riding a roller coaster. There are some tremendous highs and some devastating lows, but no matter what happens, it's always exciting. This weekend was more of the same for the young Rockets, winning a huge game at Golden State, who remain a game ahead of Houston for the sixth seed in the playoffs. They then turned around and lost to a woeful Phoenix Suns team in which their former point guard, Goran Dragic, torched them for 13 points in the fourth quarter.
In the last 10 games, the Rockets are 5-5 (12-8 in the last 20). The final 18 games are a mixed bag of the good, the bad and the ugly. Fortunately, most of the games -- 12 of them, in fact -- will be at home including the next seven, three of which are against cellar dwellers, two against teams competing for the final spots in the Western Conference playoffs and two contenders.
What the Rockets do not want to do is screw around and find themselves in a battle for the final playoff spot in the west, especially since the last game of the year is in Los Angeles against a team that is surging towards the postseason.
The good news is that the Rockets are in the driver's seat. They own the tie breaker with the Warriors and a win over Utah at home in a week would give them the same advantage over the Jazz. They even own a 2-1 advantage over the Lakers, the fourth team including the Rockets vying for the final three playoff spots.
The bad news is they were in the driver's seat last year too before losing seven of their last nine games and going from as high as the sixth seed to out of the playoffs.
Fortunately, it appears that team has a somewhat steadier hand, particularly with James Harden becoming a bona fide elite player. But they cannot afford to go on a losing streak or fall to teams they are supposed to beat.
Coach Kevin McHale last week said that his team's defense is still, at times, driven by its offense. Their energy seems to stem from how well they shoot the ball and shooting 43 percent against Phoenix led to pour defense, particularly down the stretch. They will have to get that corrected if they want to be a legitimate contender.
Still, with the final two months of the season staring the Rockets in the face, they are easily the most surprising team in basketball. They are the only team with anywhere close to their level of roster turnover since last season to possess a winning record. They still sport the youngest roster in the NBA and have had to integrate new players on the fly, while adjusting to the loss of essentially their entire rotation at the power forward spot -- ironic considering how many they had on the roster when the season started.
At this point, fans should be disappointed if the Rockets miss the playoffs yet again, but the silver lining is that, unlike last season, there is a lot more talent and youth on the roster than ever before and they can only get better.