In two weeks, the mystery of who the Rockets will play in the first round will be solved. For weeks, the question at hand was whether the Rockets or Warriors would be the top seed, but the Rockets have gone on a scintillating 27-1 stretch to pull 6.5 games ahead of the Warriors and the magic number to clinch the West and homecourt throughout the NBA playoffs is just 1.
If the Rockets can finish the job, the team will hold the top seed for the first time in franchise history and will face off against the 8 seed. However, since the Rockets have overtaken the Warriors in the standings, the focus has shifted from the top of the standings to the middle of the pack, where the seeds have been muddied up for weeks.
Of these teams, the Blazers have pulled away with a slight edge by winning 17 of their last 20 contests. Before this stretch, the team was 29-25 and slotted into the sixth seed. Now, the team is 2.5 games ahead of 4th place and six games ahead of 9th place with just eight games left to place. It is safe to say the Blazers are going to be locking down a playoff spot very soon, probably towards the top of the West bracket.
Currently, teams 4-10 are separated by just four games and any one of them could be the Rockets’ opponent in Round 1 or possibly Round 2.
As of last night, here are the standings from 4th-10th as of March 28:
Let’s dive into each team and see how the Rockets match up to each squad:
Currently, the Thunder sit in fourth place in the standings and are probably the most enigmatic team in the West. The team could make some noise and stun a high seed or could stun themselves and flop out of the first round.
The Thunder have beaten the Warriors twice this season and the Rockets once with one more game to play in Houston on April 7. However, on the other hand, the team has some bad losses. The team has split their season series with the Mavericks and Lakers, two lottery-bound teams.
All season long, this team has struggled to find their balance. Though at times, this team has provided some strong stretches of basketball. They were on an eight-game win streak in late January and are 11-5 since the All-Star Break.
The team has offensive firepower to match with the Rockets as Russell Westbrook will likely be shooting 25-30 times a game. Paul George also offers offense from the wing position that would be an upgrade from Trevor Ariza. And Steven Adams is not the best matchup for Clint Capela. Adams is averaging 14.1 PPG and nine boards per game and his physical nature would challenge Capela’s lanky body. Capela is certainly quicker but Adams would have the advantage in the post.
I believe the Rockets would beat the Thunder in a seven-game series, but if given the choice, the team would not be my first pick to face in the playoffs in the first round.
The Pelicans have possibly been the biggest surprise in the West this season, especially continuing their strong play since DeMarcus Cousins’ season ended with a torn Achilles. The team is 16-11 since Cousins’ injury and the team also had a 10-game winning streak without him on the floor.
Like the Thunder, the Pelicans have an offensive weapon to challenge Harden in Anthony Davis. His 28.3 PPG are a career-high and it is his fifth straight season averaging a double-double. Nobody on the Rockets can stop Anthony Davis, but also, nobody on the Pelicans can stop Harden. The Pelicans could definitely swipe in and get a game from Houston but pulling four out would be an Everest-like challenge for the Pels.
The biggest reason why the Pelicans would not be a desirable opponent is because the team has size that does not play to the Rockets’ strengths. It is a big reason why the Rockets lost to them in late January. However, the loss of Cousins definitely limits the potential of the Pelicans. If Cousins were playing, the Pelicans would be the last team I would want the Rockets to face, but even with him out, they aren’t a team I’m looking forward to facing.
The Spurs present an extremely interesting situation. However, the Spurs that played this season is a very different team than what we are used to. Put Kawhi Leonard on the floor and the team is far more dangerous. One of the trickling storylines this season involves Leonard’s mysterious absence from the court and if he will return at some point.
If the answer is yes, the Spurs are a team I want to stand full clear from in the playoffs. Gregg Popovich also finds ways to contend with any hand he’s been dealt. Though the Spurs have not had success against the Rockets this season in three tries, he’ll get one more shot Sunday afternoon when the Rockets head to San Antonio.
If Kawhi does not return, then the Rockets’ chances are better. However, going against LaMarcus Aldridge is not something that thrills me. The Rockets play small. The Spurs have found ways to play a more traditional style of basketball this season. Usually the power forward is a more traditional big than the Rockets’ version. This could cause some matchup problems for the Rockets.
I don’t want P.J. Tucker to be posting up on his former college teammate in Aldridge on every play. It will tire Tucker out and he won’t be able to get stops on every possession. The key to beating the Spurs is outpacing them and playing at a fast tempo to where they can’t catch up. The Spurs are the second slowest team in terms of pace, but in the playoffs, when the game slows down, it usually plays to their strength.
The Rockets, who rank 14th in pace, have found a mix and can play both fast and slow. This is a reason why they will be a huge threat to win, because they can play a variety of styles, though I prefer the Rockets in a less traditional tempo and a faster pace. A series with the Spurs could drag them to a slower pace, which could wear down the Rockets and force them into a long series with San Antonio.
Minnesota might be the most talented potential opponent, but the Rockets match up with them very well. Houston took the season series in a 4-0 sweep, and I could imagine the Rockets doing the same in a playoff series.
Minny can beat you in so many different ways. Jimmy Butler will be back, Karl-Anthony Towns just scored 56 last night, Andrew Wiggins is having a career season, but outside of the starting lineup, the bench is far worse than Houston’s.
The Timberwolves have also not been playing their best basketball as of late. Their record since the All-Star Break is 7-8 and the team has fallen from the 3rd seed to the 8th. A large part of that has to do with Butler’s injury, but the whole team is shouldering the load and the pressure has taken its toll. It could lead to them falling out of the playoffs completely. Five of their final six games though are against teams that are not currently in the playoff picture, though two are against the Denver Nuggets, a team who sits just 2.5 games behind them.
I feel like this is where the tier breaks. The teams above Minnesota present more daunting challenges than the teams below them in my opinion, but there are challenges with any team, even the two teams that are currently on the outside looking in.
The Jazz are one of the league’s hottest teams right now. After winning their first nine games in March, the team was able to jump from the outside of the playoffs to the inside, currently sitting seventh in the West.
The Jazz possess similar traits to the Spurs as to why they are an undesirable matchup. Firstly, they are well-coached. Quin Snyder has had a COY-type year, and I feel like he’s had COY-type campaigns since he got to Utah. He’s done a tremendous job with that team and this year might be his best job yet, taking a team who lost their superstar back to the playoffs and developing Donovan Mitchell.
Mitchell would be a problem in a seven-game series. Despite his playoff inexperience, he would be playing like he has nothing to lose as an 8-seed. He would not match the production from Houston’s backcourt, but he would certainly give them a run for their money.
Like San Antonio, the team plays a very slow pace as well. The contrasting styles could put Houston in a bind. Utah is also extremely physical, and they would not let any team get their wins easily. Utah is a scrappy bunch that has nothing to lose and everything to gain. That’s a recipe for disaster when teams are entering the playoffs. It may not be a recipe for winning, but it’s not the most ideal opponent.
The Clippers are one of three teams to have beaten the Rockets multiple times this season. Now, the times the Clips beat the Rockets were very different times considering Blake Griffin was still with the team. However, the Clippers have managed to stay in playoff contention without him. The team is 16-10 since the trade and the team sits just 1.5 games out of the eighth spot.
A Rockets-Clippers first round series would be incredibly chippy and physical. Likely not one I would prefer to see. The Clips play big and DeAndre Jordan and Montrezl Harrell would be focal points for LA. Boban Marjanovic would also likely be more involved in a gameplan against the Rockets, and Lou Williams would love to get revenge on the Rockets.
LA has proven that they can beat Houston at its own game too. LA can mold into many different styles. They can play a more traditional game with their bigs or can shoot on the perimeter. Though I would not want to count on Austin Rivers and Lou Williams to win me a series, they certainly could shoot lights out for a game or two and stun the Rockets.
I think the Rockets would beat the Clippers in four or five games, but the Clips would not make it easy on them.
Denver is an interesting opponent, though it is also probably the furthest out of reach since Denver is currently 10th and 2.5 games out. If Denver makes the playoffs, they would need a strong stretch of basketball to end the year, meaning they would have momentum going into the postseason.
Momentum is definitely something this team needs as the Nuggets are just 7-9 since the All-Star Break. All seven of their final games come against teams above .500 as well, so not only will they need to play good basketball, but beat good basketball teams.
The Rockets blew out the Nuggets twice in Houston this season and the team matches up with them very well. But playing in the altitude is never fun and the Nuggets like to take advantage of that. Their team is also built as a versatile one, being able to beat you in many different ways. However, the one thing that could stand in their way of making the playoffs is their defense.
The Rockets average 124.7 PPG against the Nuggets this season and the Rockets would be able to run the scoreboard up on them to what hopefully would be a resounding sweep.
If I got to choose the Rockets opponent for the first round, Denver would likely be my pick given that they have had the most success against them this season, but with Denver fading from the playoff picture, it seems unlikely that the Rockets would get that chance.
Minnesota is probably the next ideal opponent for Houston. Butler’s return from injury is shaky and the Rockets have proven that the team can beat the Wolves with or without Butler. Plus, the Rockets’ bench is far superior to the Wolves’ and Ryan Anderson always finds a way to play well in Minny.
I think the Rockets have the ability to beat any of these teams in a seven-game series. The talent is there, all that is needed is execution. If the team can execute the game plan properly, teams are going to have a hard time trying to beat Houston once, let alone four times in seven tries.