Tonight, the Rockets play the first of consecutive games against the San Antonio Spurs. After these two games, the Rockets will have three games left in the season, and their fate will basically be sealed.
So much is at stake: first and foremost, Houston's first division crown since 1994, when they won the old Midwest Division. If the standings hold -- and the Rockets need to sweep their games against the Spurs on Wednesday and Friday for that to be all but assured -- there will be another banner at the Toyota Center, regardless of the playoff results.
Just as importantly for the present, the Rockets can basically guarantee home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. A sweep of the Spurs and Houston is in the driver's seat for the No. 2 and the coveted matchup with the Dallas Mavericks (although, at this point, I wouldn't be upset to see the Grizzlies there either).
Furthermore, the Spurs are running roughshod through the league right now. Last night, they cruised by a Thunder team fighting for its playoff life (and missing Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka). They are riding an eight-game winning streak, beating teams by 20.8 points per game over that span. While the Warriors kick back and get primed for the playoffs, the Spurs are pressing on the gas and showing they are every bit as formidable as always.
Kawhi Leonard looks like the best defensive player in the league, and if he had played every game this year he would be starting to etch his name on the 2014-2015 Defensive Player of the Year trophy right about now. He'll be assigned to James Harden and will be The Beard's toughest foe yet.
But therein lies the opportunity: if the Rockets manage to sweep the Spurs in this home-and-home series, it would be a clarion call to the rest of the league. The Rockets are coming for the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
James Harden hasn't slowed a tad. The reigning Western Conference Player of the Week has dropped games of 51 and 41 points in two Rockets wins on Thursday and Sunday against the Mavericks and Thunder. He has been the most unguardable player in the league this season.
He's the MVP, and only trite "best player on the best team" arguments can be made for Curry at this point. Harden hasn't just carried the Rockets into the playoffs. What does "by far the best player on the second-best team" not arguably carry more weight? Numerically, holistically, consistently, Harden has been better this year.
Dwight Howard is back, and the reins are starting to be loosened. By the way, he's averaged 23.6 points and 13.5 rebounds per 36 minutes since his return. He still looks rusty, but he's producing. Terrence Jones has returned and hasn't lost a step -- 10 blocks in 3 games -- and the Rockets are 3-0 with their starting front line intact.
A reminder: the Rockets, with James Harden, Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones starting at the same time, are 7-0 this season. Five of those games were against weak competition, admittedly, but you can only beat the teams in front of you.
James Harden has rightfully earned his place as the centerpiece of league attention, and a strong finish would
likely hopefully lock up the first MVP in Houston since Hakeem Olajuwon patrolled the paint. His team has finally coalesced around him -- minus Donatas Motiejunas, not to be overlooked -- and the Rockets are peaking, too.
These next two games will tell us a great deal about this team. They haven't been tested with an opponent like this wrecking-ball incarnation of the Spurs since their last four games against the Warriors. The Rockets didn't look in the same league as the team from the Bay.
These are not the same Rockets that lost those four games. In San Antonio tonight and in Houston on Friday, they can prove it.