Houston Rockets: Comparing the Stretch Run Schedule:
With six weeks remaining in the regular season most teams have 25 games remaining. This is the period we refer to as the stretch run since squads are jockeying to either get the final playoff seed or to gain home court advantage. Teams who have already secured their playoff spot will utilize this period to work on tweaking their weaknesses and some will even begin to strategize where they want to finish (to obtain their ideal first round match-up).
Houston will approach these final games knowing the bulk of the work will have to be accomplished without their big man Dwight Howard who remains out following a bone marrow aspiration injection. Initial reports were he would return in 6 to 8 weeks which if he remains on schedule would find him back with the team by mid to late March.
For James Harden and company their priority is to retain home court advantage with a view to try and catch division leading Memphis. Through the first month of Dwight Howard‘s absence Harden has successfully met their objectives as they remain the third seed, have a game and a half pad over fourth seed Portland and have closed the gap to a game and a half on Memphis. Arguably the biggest test to date occurs this next week beginning with a game versus Cleveland and followed by two sets of back to back games in 5 nights.
With that in mind I decided to look at the currently ranked top 8 teams’ closing schedules as they prepare for the final push toward the post season.
[table id=27 /]
With Friday’s win over Brooklyn the Rockets face some stiff competition more so in terms of how many games they’ll play than in who the opponent’s are:
As mentioned Houston will play 5 games over the course of 7 days and have the dreaded 4 games in 5 night stretch. First they play Cleveland on Sunday and then they play 4 games in 5 nights including two series of back to back games versus: Atlanta/Memphis followed by Detroit/Denver. The goal should be to retain their position during this week with an onside view to cutting the game and half distance between themselves and Memphis. If they can maintain their top seed through this stretch it will be a huge accomplishment. Of note, Houston’s current 4-game win streak (with New Orleans) equals the longest current unbeaten streak in the Association.
The other current seven playoff teams next few games shake out like this:
Rest of Western Seeded Teams:
Having just ended another 7-game win streak to push themselves into the 8th seed the Thunder have lost 2-games in a row though they battled in both. The tough part of their schedule is past them so now they will focus on getting Kevin Durant healthy and back in the line-up and also set their aim on climbing the ladder. Their next 8 opponents are:
For the Thunder they have a couple of easy games after Portland followed by a mix of high and low seeds. During this eight game stretch they also have two series of back to back versus: Philly/Chicago and then at the end of this period of games they play Chicago and Dallas.
The Spurs haven’t seemed to find their inner champion so far this season between a mix of players being out injured or fatigue they continue to sit at the lower end of the ladder in 7th. Last night they finally pulled off a win following 4 straight losses making them vulnerable to overtaken. Like most people I keep waiting for the “typical Spurs” to show up and go on an extended win streak, but perhaps age, usage and luck have finally caught up to the perennial 50-win squad. Their next 8 opponents are:
Of all the lower seeds San Antonio gets a bit of a break facing 4 lower seeds in their next 8 games though they start this stretch with a back to back series. Perhaps this is when the Spurs mount their effort to start a win streak and attempt to overtake the Clipper and Dallas who lie directly ahead of them.
This may be the week Blake Griffin returns as the surgery to remove the staff infection occurred close to 3-weeks ago which was the initial prognosis for healing. Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan have kept the team afloat, but I continue to wonder how they are winning games without any bench. Fortunately, Houston finally broke the bubble winning this week and they’ll get a chance to even up the season series at the end of the Clippers next 8 games on March 15. That date would bring us to the six week period since Howard underwent his (shy of a couple days) procedure. If Howard is on track with his rehab, could this be the date he returns to the court?
- Golden State:
- Oklahoma City
The sixth ranked Clippers had lost 2 in a row prior to demolishing Memphis Friday, but get no favors in their upcoming schedule when they’ll face Chicago, Portland and Golden State, Dallas and Oklahoma City. Sure they get to play Minnesota twice, but don’t count out the young guns role as spoiler especially now with Kevin Garnett pushing them to finish the season strong. If there is movement on the bottom of the ladder this stretch for the Clippers coupled with the Spurs easier schedule and a surging Thunder squad could be where it happens.
The Mavericks continue to present an issue for teams, especially now that they’ve upgraded their bench slightly through the addition of Amare Stoudemire. There appears to be personality conflicts as per this week when Rajon Rondo and coach Rick Carlisle had words, followed by Rondo’s benching in a game where they were already severely undermanned. Yet, with the offensive juggernaut improving defensively this squad feels like they could be the ones playing spoiler come April. Their next 8 opponents are:
- New Orleans
- Golden State
- Oklahoma City
Their toughest test will be the back to back series versus Portland and Golden State on the road. For the Mavericks perhaps their biggest battle is resolving any turmoil within the squad as they attempt to move up the ladder and position themselves for a home court seed.
Like last season the Blazers got out to a hot start, but unlike last season they are continuing to win and subsequently have retained their upper seed. Currently in fourth the win over Oklahoma City last night was another sign of the team’s growth. Adding bench depth via Arron Afflalo at the deadline has positioned this team well for the post season. Like the Warriors and Raptors the Portland arena is one of the louder venue in the Association, so maintaining home court is crucial for this squad. Their next 8 opponents are:
While they face a combination of lower and higher seeds in the upcoming schedule, it is the period from March 20th to to 28th where they will be tested when they play three sets of back to back series in a row. This squad continues to grow and improve and could be a definite contender if they are able to get Nicolas Batum healthy for the post season.
The Grizzlies get hit hard this week via the schedule demons as they face a daunting 4 games in 5 nights via two sets of back to back series: Jazz/Rockets and Lakers/Pelicans.
For Houston they need to take advantage of this schedule (though as per above they face their own crazy schedule) because they’ll get Memphis on the second night of their back to back. By weeks end, whoever sits in second place/first in the Southwest Division will be the team who has the foot up to win the division and finish second.
Golden State Warriors:
They’ve maintained their number one seed throughout the season and while they’ve shown a bit of vulnerability on the road upcoming games against lower seeded East squads should help to alleviate that problem. They have two upcoming back to back series in this period with one versus the less difficult East teams Celts/Nets and a more difficult series versus the Clippers and Suns.
Imagine you worked all year to garner the top spot only to see your first round opponent is the suddenly surging Thunder squad. Then factor in how many games Kevin Durant has missed and how healthy and fresh his legs will be coupled with the trade deadline additions to fill their weaknesses and bench depth. The best bet for the Warriors is to keep doing the same thing they’ve done all season and privately to hope Oklahoma City can somehow move into the seventh seed!
The chart below outlines the stats for the remaining seeded Eastern squads.
[table id=25 /]
Of note, the battle in the East is primarily in two spots. How will the top unfold? Atlanta seemingly has a firm grasp on the top rung unless Cleveland or the Raptors go on a big unbeaten streak simultaneously to a Hawks losing streak which doesn’t seem realistic at this point in the year. Given that the 2nd, 3rd and 4th seeds will be determined between Toronto, Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee and Washington. Of these 5 teams it’s a veritable certainty Cleveland and Toronto will make 2 of those top seeds given the Cav’s play of late and the Raptors sitting at a magic number of 11 to clinch the Atlantic (note: any combination of Raptor wins and Nets losses equaling 11 will solidify the division). The final spot could be any of the 3 other teams with Chicago probably having the edge given their experience and talent base.
Notably the Wizards are in free fall and may be the team most want to face in the post season given how fragile they appear coupled with the apparent lack of chemistry.
The other area of note is the bottom of the ladder where there are six teams vying to get the final two spots in the playoffs: Miami, Charlotte, Boston, Brooklyn, Detroit and Indiana. The East news this week was the loss of Miami’s Chris Bosh for the season, Derrick Rose undergoing the knife yet again for another torn meniscus which will likely effect their ability to move up and more importantly determine where they finish if they should make the post season.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was the sight of Paul George practicing with the Pacers this week which just so happened to coincide with the Pacers bouncing Brooklyn from the final rung to overtake the 8th seed. Just like Golden State may be facing Oklahoma City as an eighth seed imagine how the Hawks feel about the prospect of facing Indiana as their first round opponent.
Personally it does feel like the Pacers and Heat have the best opportunity given their experience and talent, but don’t sleep on the Pistons and Stan Van Gundy who’ll be pushing the squad to capture a seed and garner post season experience for their youthful core.
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