With the Houston Rockets throttling the Phoenix Suns last night and the Portland Trail Blazers knocking off the Denver Nuggets, the Western Conference playoff seedings just got really interesting as we open the final (half) week of the season.
Houston is now just a half-game back of Denver, with the Nuggets playing two more games this week, as they take on the Utah Jazz on Tuesday night and the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday, while the Rockets finish off with the Oklahoma City Thunder on Tuesday.
For the Rockets, it is pretty simple. Beat OKC, and they guarantee themselves at least the number three seed. They can also still grab the second seed should they win and Denver lose at least one of their final two games. Houston owns the tiebreak with the Nuggets by virtue of a 3-1 win in the season series, so the Rockets will take the second seed should the teams finish with identical 54-28 records (it would also add another dimension to James Harden’s MVP candidacy should the Rockets finish second, but I digress).
The Rockets could also still finish in the fourth seed. They are currently 1.5 games ahead of Portland, and the Trail Blazers still have games to play against the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings, both very winnable contests. Should they win them both and the Rockets lose to the Thunder on Tuesday, the teams will finish with identical 53-29 records, with Portland holding the tiebreak on a 2-1 series victory this year.
But it all comes back to defeating the Thunder. Win, and it doesn’t matter what Portland does in its two games. With a victory, you simply let the Denver chips fall as they may. A win also allows Houston to avoid the Golden State Warriors until the Western Conference Finals, as the Dubs will get matched up with the winner of the four-seed vs. five-seed matchup.
The scenarios for Houston’s potential opposition in the first round are a little more complicated, with the Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, and Oklahoma City Thunder all within a half-game of one another for the sixth through the eighth seed. The Thunder play the Rockets on Tuesday and then close out against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday, who will have nothing to play for.
The Clippers and Spurs have just one game remaining, with San Antonio taking on the Dallas Mavericks and L.A. battling the Utah Jazz, both on Wednesday.
Things are so tight heading into this week that the Jazz don’t even have a stranglehold on the fifth seed yet. They currently stand two games in front of OKC, with both clubs still playing two games yet and the Thunder holding the tiebreak by virtue of their 4-0 season sweep of Utah, who still have to play both Denver and the Clippers.
It’s really anyone’s guess how this all ends up shaking out, but the short-short of it is that the Rockets essentially control their own destiny. Beat the Thunder, grab at least the third seed (potentially the second), and ensure they don’t meet Golden State until the Western Conference Finals.
There are some out there who feel the Rockets would be better served meeting the Dubs in the second round, but I’m not one of those people. That feels like a bit of a wild card scenario to me, where anything can happen, while I simply don’t feel the Rockets are going falter to the Dubs in the Finals yet again. If they get that far this year, I feel like they’re going to seal the deal and make the championship round, regardless of their opponent out West.
It all starts with a win over the Thunder on Tuesday.
Who is the ideal first-round opponent for the Rockets?
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