The Houston Rockets 5-game Eastern road trip offered the first glimpses of them resembling the team who made it to the Western Conference finals last season.
In retrospect, maybe Daryl Morey will be asking the schedule makers to push next season’s long East trip to the start of the season so the squad can bond and build chemistry. The trip had 3 wins sandwiched between the two losses featuring a desperate Bulls team and the hot Hornets who have now won 7 games in a row.
What stood out in the 3 wins was the Houston Rockets victories in Toronto and Boston both of which ended long home court win streaks of 12 and 14 games respectively. Most importantly during the trip the Rockets truly have resembled last season’s squad on both sides of the court. They got pivotal stops when required, scored against tough defenses and just seemed to be more in sync.
The bonus achieved during the trip was the shift in the standings. Prior to the trip the Rockets had been clinging to the eighth seed with the Jazz hot on their heels while the Mavericks and Blazers had fairly healthy leads ahead of them. During the course of the road trip the Rockets have moved up the ladder into the seventh seed.
Additionally the Mavericks have lost 5 straight, the Blazers went 2 and 4 and the Rockets are suddenly in the conversation to move up even higher. Even the Grizzlies who were previously considered to be untouchable in fifth suddenly appear within reach given the onslaught of injuries that has befallen them.
To wit, joining Marc Gasol as out for the season is Mario Chalmers who ruptured his Achilles Tendon. Mike Conley will miss 3 to 4 weeks with Achilles tendonitis while Chris “Birdman” Andersen is out indefinitely with a shoulder subluxation as is Brandan Wright with a knee injury. Also ailing are Vince Carter (calf) and Zach Randolph (knee) though their ailments are more of a game to game situation.
Regardless that’s a lot of key players to be missing and the fact the Rockets surpassed the Mavericks and are closing in on the Blazers after just one week makes it seem possible with the Grizzlies copious injuries that they could be caught.
For each of the squads currently seeded 5 through 9 they will do their best to finish above the bottom two rungs so they skip a first round series against the Golden State Warriors or the San Antonio Spurs. Ideally the 5-spot is the seed to aim for, not that the Clippers will be a guaranteed win, but given their inability to prove themselves in the post season they sure do seem like the best of the top 4 to meet in the first round.
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As of today (Sunday, March 13) the standings bottom of the standings are:
- Memphis 5th with 4.5 game lead on Blazers
- Portland 6th with 1.5 game lead on Rockets
- Houston 7th with same record as Mavericks, but they hold the lead
- Dallas 8th with 2.5 game lead over Jazz
- Utah 9th
As mentioned Memphis have so many injuries the 4.5 game lead they have over Portland and 6 game lead over Houston isn’t as invincible now. Further they have the most games versus top 4 teams (7) and play 9 on the road. It may be a stretch to catch them, but it’s more conceivable now that the Rockets have looked more cohesive.
At sixth the Blazers are definitely within reach with 9 games versus playoff teams and 6 of those against the top 4 seeds. And while the Mavericks currently have the same record as the Rockets they’ll have a much tougher schedule to finish with 12 of their 16 games against current playoff seeds (Jazz at 9th included in that count).
The Jazz have possibly the easiest schedule of all the lower seeds with just 9 games versus teams in the playoffs, though they’ll need to make up 2.5 games to on the Rockets first.
The one break the Rockets get is they’ve already completed their Warrior and Spurs series. They still have 2 games to play versus the Thunder as well as one each against the Grizzlies, Mavericks, Jazz and Clippers. And the Rockets have the most home games remaining in this group with ten.
Though the Rockets have strung together 3 wins in a row several times this season and then gone on to immediately lose the next 3 this time it feels different. First and foremost the way the team played during this road trip finally showcased a sense of urgency. This week will confirm that assumption as the Rockets play 4 games all of which offer their own challenges. First up they need to win the Grizzlies match to gain on them in the standings. Next the game versus the Clippers offers another top team, but one they’ve handled fairly easily this season. As for Minnesota, the fact they just beat the Thunder on their home court should serve as a reminder not to take them for granted and finish the week with the Hawks who have been the best defensive team since the All-Star break.
At this stage the Rockets must take it one game at a time, one week at a time, but they also need to string together a run of wins. Ideally, what was observed on the road is a sign of what’s to come. If I’m right I’d expect the Rockets to finish at best in fifth, but more likely as the sixth seed. Either of those options are more appealing than having to play one of 2 teams who have literally yet to be beat on their home courts this season.
This week the Rockets need to win a minimum of 3 games if they want to continue their ascent. It’s a tough objective given the opponents, however they dug their own hole, now we’ll discover if they have the hops to climb out of it.
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