Most Houston followers still attached this deep into what appears to be a lost season have probably gone against their better judgement and started keeping a pair of desperate eyes on the Western Conference standings, hoping for some stroke of luck that will eliminate Memphis from the playoff picture (maybe an untimely injury to Rudy Gay. Wait a minute…). John Hollinger’s Playoff Odds tab the Rockets as the most likely of those not in the top eight in the West to jump into the playoff picture, but even that only places Houston with a lukewarm 27.2% chance to get beaten in the first round. Apologizing beforehand for any Rudy-type platitudes, I think it’s clear that to make the playoffs, the Houston Rockets will have to do the unexpected and come pretty close to winning out the remaining 14 games on their schedule. And just what might that entail? Beating the Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks. Yeesh.
Houston Rockets vs. Boston Celtics, Friday, March 18th: Surprisingly, this matchup with the defending Eastern Conference Champions likely shows the most promise for this collection of young, too-dumb-to-know-when-to-quit bunch in Houston. In the last couple of seasons, Houston’s assembly of role players has enjoyed a 2-1 advantage over the 2001 All-NBA team in Boston, including an impressive overtime victory in the final 10 games of last season. The problem with deriving too much from Houston’s recent encounters with the boys in green lies in the absence of Aaron Brooks, who in those two victories posted lines of 30 points on 17 shots and 24 on 15. Brooks’ combination of raw speed and deft ball-handling appeared to trouble Rajon Rondo, or maybe Brooks just likes tradition. Regardless, the new-look Rockets really have not had much experience against all this… experience. This one could be the game to steal from the Celts, though, given their recent inability to score (Boston has only cracked the 90 point threshold once in its last five games, and lest the reader thinks this is a pace-induced anomaly, the Celts have gone 2-3 in that stretch with only a couple wins over the similarly anemic Milwaukee Bucks).
Houston Rockets at Miami Heat, Sunday, March 27th: Yeah, this could get ugly. The Miami Heat is prone to decimating those teams not in its stratosphere, and, sorry to say, the Rockets obviously are not. In the team’s meeting earlier this year, the Heatles were midway through their 22-1 stretch, and Dwyane Wade’s 45 points made a Houston victory all but impossible even on the Rockets’ home floor. While Miami often plays down to its competition, the end of the season approaches along with the siren songs of playoff seedings. Expect an inspired, aggressive Heat team (so… expect a loss).
Houston Rockets vs. San Antonio Spurs, Friday, April 1st: A rematch of this weekend’s nailbiter, this game comes loaded with playoff implications, as the Spurs can “choose their opponent” by giving one up to Houston on the road in the last month of the season as the Spurs’ three main cogs likely enjoy some rest. By this point, Houston hopes to have the services of one Luis Scola, the almost-Spur who missed Saturday’s shootout; if that happens, the Rockets may have a prime opportunity to sneak out a let-down game from a San Antonio group that will have just played five consecutive games against teams currently in the playoffs (including those Grizzlies in Tennessee).
Houston Rockets vs. Dallas Mavericks, Monday, April 11th: Dallas may be Houston’s greatest matchup problem in the NBA; the Rockets, like many others, have no clear cut defender for the Mavs’ number-one offensive option, Dirk Nowitzki, seem perplexed by the constantly fluctuating (and reacting and rotating) defense of Dallas, and boast impressive depth that pales in comparison to the endless string of veterans the Mavs run out nightly. Still, this is the second-to-last game of the season for both the Mavs and Rockets, which means Dallas, world-beaters that they are, may have playoff positioning sown up by this juncture. For this team’s sake (well, at least for its playoff hopes, as the Rockets should probably lose out in the best interests of the team and its future), one can only hope that Dallas has no reason to play this game. And Rockets fans can only hope that Houston still does.