Kevin McHale and the Rockets don't have the lightest of schedules in their remaining 30 games.
BY: KYLE ADAMS
The Rockets’ second half of the season began Tuesday with a tough last-minute win against the not-so-great Toronto Raptors. They followed that the next night with an ugly 21-point loss in Utah.
In this second half of the season, the Rockets are going to need all the wins they can get, playing eight of the top teams in the league, including both of the Los Angeles teams twice and the in-state rival Dallas Mavericks three times. With the playoffs in sight, the Rockets are going to have to finish strong, with or without a trade.
Here’s a look at what they have left in the remaining 30 games, as 17 are against teams currently in playoff position within their respective conferences. Sixteen of those 30 are on the road, where Houston is 6-11.
Teams over .500: It’s not going to get much easier for the Rockets in the second half of the season. They’re going to need to stay consistent to be able to remain in the middle of the playoff race. The players are starting to rally around new head coach Kevin McHale, who has gained his players’ respect for his quick leash on those who aren’t playing hard. Under McHale, the best players will play, no matter what the name is on the back of the jersey, and the most consistent player this season has been Kyle Lowry.
The undisputed leader of the team at point guard, he is having his best year yet as his stats are considerably better all across the board, averaging 15.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 7.5 assists. It seems like every time he laces up, he flirts with a triple double, no matter who the competition is.
You can see why the Lakers reportedly won’t do a deal with the Rockets unless Lowry is included in the Pau Gasol talks. And I’m sure the Memphis Grizzlies are kicking themselves for letting him go. The Rockets are going to need Lowry to keep up his pace for the remainder of the season to stay in the middle of the pack. With Kevin Martin and Luis Scola having down years, and showing so much inconsistency, the Rockets are going to need other players to step up and help Lowry carry the load, especially against teams like the Lakers, Thunder, Mavericks, Bulls and Heat. Soon enough, we will find out what the Rockets are really made of, playing against teams of this caliber this late in the season will have a playoff-like atmosphere. We will see if the young guys on the team are ready for the big stage, or if they’re still a year or two away from competing.
For most of March, the Rockets will be going back and forth between good and bad teams, with a few teams mixed in that are hovering around .500. But at the end of March and the beginning of April, the Rockets will play five of the toughest and best teams in the league. In my opinion, this is going to be the most interesting part of the entire season. Starting March 27, they will play the defending champion Mavericks on the road, and then come back three days later to play the Grizzlies, who will most likely have Zach Randolph back in the lineup. After that, they will play the young and talented Indiana Pacers at home, and then go on the road where they will play the second best team in the league in the Chicago Bulls before entertaining the Los Angeles Lakers for the second time this season. That will be a make-or-break week for the Rockets. I think if they can win three of those five games, they will be in great shape to make a run in the playoffs. If they lose three of the five, or more, I think they will be in serious trouble and lose some of that confidence they have at this time. At the end of the season, they play the favorites to win it all this year in the Miami Heat on April 22. I think this will be the most crucial game of the year, as it’s at the end of the season, leading into the playoffs. And with a win against the Heat, it could give them an unlimited amount of confidence in the first round of the playoffs, and they could possibly upset a top team and move on to the second round.
Teams under .500: The Rockets do have a few bottom-feeders they will play in the second half as well, which I think will help them figure out their rotation, especially if they choose to make a deal. The Rockets get to play the Hornets and Kings twice. The Hornets shouldn’t give them any problems. Eric Gordon can’t stay on the floor and he is by far their best player. After him, it’s just a bunch of role players and end-of- the-bench guys. The Kings could give them a bit of a problem; they have a lot of young talent in the starting five and off the bench. But the Rockets should come out with the win each time they play.
The Rockets will also get to play the Raptors, Nets and Bobcats. All should be easy wins. Yes, Toronto gave them trouble, but that was perhaps expected, being the first game out of a six-day all-star break. Though the Nets have Deron Williams and the finally healthy Brook Lopez, they still should pose no threat. The Bobcats also shouldn’t be an issue. Not even Michael Jordan in his prime could help that outfit.
Rockets make the playoffs: After the Rockets host the Hornets in the last game of the season, I expect them to be the sixth or seventh seed in the West. A little bit of a drop-off from their current sixth place, since their remaining schedule is loaded with top-tier clubs. I just don’t see them being better than the Lakers, Mavericks, Clippers, Thunder, or Spurs just yet. I think they are just a notch below. But when the playoffs come around, I think they have the potential to upset a team in the first round. The Spurs, for example, always do great during the season, but they are not getting younger, and I don’t think they can keep up with a young and athletic team like the Rockets that late in the season in a seven-game playoff. I don’t think the Mavericks are going anywhere either, unless they make some deals before the trade deadline. If the Rockets can get one of them in the first round, expect an upset, which means the Rockets will make it to the second round and gain more experience for the young guys so that next year they can make a serious run at a Western Conference title, hopefully after a splashy free agency period this summer.