Entering tonight’s game versus Portland, the Houston Rockets are 31-25 and occupy the sixth seed in the ever-shifting Western Conference. Seeds four through eight are fragile and precarious, flipping almost-daily, so potential playoff match-ups are difficult to peg.
But with three straight road wins under its belt — including impressive comeback victories over the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls — Houston appears poised for a return to postseason basketball after a two-year absence. For Rockets’ fans, seeding is secondary to simply making it.
Goran Dragic was just named Western Conference Player of the Week for his superstar-level play in incumbent point Kyle Lowry’s absence due to bacterial infection. With averages of 20, 3, 8, and 3 (points, rebounds, assists, and steals), Dragic looks like a young Manu Ginobli, lithe and acrobatic in his forays to the hoop and dangerously clutch in the timing of his baskets. Lowry is back earlier than anyone expected, dropping seven dimes to accompany a whopping zero turnovers in a win over Sacramento Sunday night. His return adds unprecedented depth to the Houston bench, which also contains streaky sniper Chase Budinger and reliable power forward Patrick Patterson. Although devoid of closing superstars, Courtney Lee and Luis Scola have each stepped up to assume primary scoring roles in the past week. Finally, in addition to the stalwart veteran towers of Marcus Camby and Samuel Dalembert, rookie Chandler Parsons has shockingly emerged as one of the NBA’s best young defensive stoppers. He has stifled Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant in respective wins, and his offense is vastly improving; Parsons is shooting over 40 percent for the past month. In similar fashion to the Indiana Pacers and pre-meltdown Philadelphia 76ers, Houston is winning under first-year Coach Kevin McHale with defense, team play, and some seriously high levels of nightly effort. How long can this keep up without a certified superstar? Probably not past a first-round upset, but the foundation is definitely laid for future success if G.M. Daryl Morey can re-sign upcoming free agent Dragic and land a star this summer. What follows is a brief list of Houston’s likely playoff scenarios; which do you think is most favorable?
1) San Antonio Spurs (40-14). Season series? 2-2. Prognosis? I think this would be Houston’s best bet for an upset bid. San Antonio is old — I know, they usually disprove this notion after having been declared dead on multiple occasions — and proved vulnerable losing to eighth-seeded Memphis in 2011 despite a fantastic regular season. Houston also matches up well against them, with former Spurs’ draft picks Scola and Dragic in the bag, and should have won both meetings in San Antonio. The Spurs’ run is over, and Houston has the potential to drive the final postseason stake into their hearts.
2) Oklahoma City Thunder (41-15). Season series? 2-2. Prognosis? This is tough. Oklahoma City is the best team in the West, no matter their runner-up record, and Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook are perhaps the best superstar scoring duo in the NBA. They have all the talent in the world; the only thing holding them back is youth, and that is not enough to maintain any optimism for a Houston upset despite the even regular season record.
3) Los Angeles Lakers (35-22). Season series? 2-1. Prognosis? Houston was fortunate to defeat L.A. twice thanks in large part to Andrew Bynum’s pair of ejections in each Lakers’ loss. If Bynum keeps his cool, Houston doesn’t stand a chance against the athleticism and length of Bynum and Pau Gasol inside.
4) Los Angeles Clippers (34-22). Season series? 0-3. Prognosis? Lob City’s athletic post players gave Houston’s ground dwellers fits in all three meetings this season, and Chris Paul poses a great defensive challenge for the slight Dragic. But there is no reason Houston shouldn’t be able to defeat L.A., an inconsistent but talented outfit.
5) Memphis Grizzlies (32-23). Season series? 2-2. Prognosis? This is another good scenario for Houston, but it’s unlikely to happen with Memphis currently holding fast to the fifth seed. Lowry always plays well against his former team, and both squads are young, scrappy, and up-and-coming. Would be a fun, competitive, balanced, if unlikely, series of two Western Conference risers.