Houston Rockets @ Oklahoma City Thunder on 4/9/19

With only two days remaining in the NBA season, one would think playoff seeding is already set, right?

That’s far from the truth in the Western Conference, with only the Golden State Warriors being locked into their spot as the No. 1 seed. Two through eight are still a complete toss-up, so let’s take a look at how the Rockets’ (53-28) final game of the season impacts their seeding.

Scenario one: Houston beats OKC.

  • If Denver goes 1-1 or 0-2, Houston is the No. 2 seed
  • If Denver goes 2-0, Houston is the No. 3 seed

Scenario two: Houston loses to OKC.

  • If Denver goes 0-2, Houston is the No. 3 seed
  • If Denver goes 2-0 or 1-1, Portland’s record becomes involved
    • Portland goes 1-1 or 0-2. Houston is the No. 3 seed
    • Portland goes 2-0, Houston is the No. 4 seed

Wild, right? Denver’s remaining two games are at Utah and then at home against Minnesota. Portland will be in L.A. against the LeBron-less Lakers, then back home for Sacramento.

For the once 11-14 Rockets to even be in the conversation as a possible No. 2 seed is a testament to the historic season James Harden is having. At times, he has single-handedly dragged the Rockets to wins that they had no business earning. Harden’s had such a monumental season that he is putting up numbers that haven’t been seen since Wilt Chamberlain was still lacing them up.

Wilt.

The Wilt.

That’s rarefied air.

In addition to Harden’s historic heroics, Houston is finally finding cohesion as a team. Since the All-Star break, the Rockets are 20-4, which is the best record in the NBA during that stretch.

Houston’s shooters are getting hot at just the right time. The Rockets are currently shooting 40 percent from behind the arc over their last 10 games and looking to build upon their No. 1 all-time streak of 15 plus three-pointers made per game (currently at eight games in a row).

The Thunder have struggled during the back half of the season (just 10-13 since the All-Star break), at one point falling from third in the West all the way to eighth. A team that looked great for the first half of the season shockingly regressed once it reached the hardest portion of its schedule.

However, Russell Westbrook and Paul George are still two of the most elite players in the NBA, and the Thunder are still a defensive juggernaut despite their recent struggles. In three games this season (two wins and a loss), they’ve held the Rockets to an average of 108 points and just 30 percent shooting from deep.

This final game between the Rockets and Thunder may serve as a first round preview, but given OKC’s struggles as of late and Houston’s insane shooting streak, fans shouldn’t worry. It would be a gentleman’s sweep at worst for the Rockets.

Harden might not see himself repeat as MVP due to an equally impressive season from the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, but with the level at which he and the Rockets are playing, Harden may find himself hoisting a different trophy when it’s all said and done.

Prediction: Rockets 123 – Thunder 106

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Houston Rockets 149, Phoenix Suns 111: New records set in blowout

A healthy, rolling Houston Rockets team took on the tanking Phoenix Suns without Devin Booker or DeAndre Ayton, and the results were predictable.

Teams have been trying all sorts of ways to slow down Harden, and the Suns started and continued with a highly aggressive double team which seemed more interested in containing Harden than winning the game. Harden took what the Suns had to offer him. There were multiple plays throughout the game where Harden would pass out of the double team to Capela, Capela would pass to whoever was wide open, and Eric Gordon or Danuel House or P.J. Tucker would take the easy three-pointer.

The Rockets jumped to an early 27-13 lead, and the rest of the game was not in doubt. Jamaal Crawford made things interesting in the late first and early second on his way to 27 points on 9-17 shooting, and the Suns came as close as 39-31. But after that, Harden started scoring as he beat the double team to drive into the rim, and more Rockets hit threes. Houston led 77-47 at the half.

The game was over at that point, and then Harden decided to actually score for himself to finish things off late in the 3rd. He had 16 points in that quarter, finished with 30 in the night despite the Suns’ obsessive focus on him, and sat out for the rest of the fourth. After the horrid scandal of the Rockets players leaving the bench to go lift weights on Friday, the Rockets starters did watch the rest of the game though Chris Paul appeared to head for the locker for a short stint at the beginning of the quarter.

The only relevant part of the fourth quarter was watching the Rockets chase the NBA record for made threes after tying it at 26 for what feels like a dozen games this season. Gary Clark hit the 26th three with three minutes left in the game, and then there were about five three-point attempts, some of which were good shots, which all clanked. But with a little over a minute left in the game, Austin Rivers of all players took an iso-stepback three which went in.

27 made threes, a new NBA record. 149 points in a game, a season high for the Rockets. An easy, simple win which was highlighted by good passing, Harden’s brilliance, and the Rockets not messing around against an inferior team.

Key Player: Eric Gordon

Salman Ali noted that Eric Gordon is back to practically the same percentage from 3 compared to last season, which is notable given how awful he was to start the season. Gordon made 8 three-pointers on his way to 26 points, and these were smooth shots. I don’t think any of them even hit the rim.

Clyde Drexler in one of his usual Clyde moments declared that when Gordon is on, the Rockets are unbeatable. More realistic fans know that is not the case, but Gordon is critical if Houston is to have any hope of beating the Rockets. It is great for him to be playing like this at the key moment, but Gordon is such a feast or famine player. Rockets fans have to hope that coin lands heads in the Western Conference Finals

What is Next?
Despite all that the Rockets have accomplished by bouncing back, their final game against the Oklahoma City Thunder will be their most important game of the season. If the Portland Trail Blazers win out (though they are losing to the Denver Nuggets at the time of writing), a loss will put the Rockets in the four seed and a second-round match up with the Warriors instead of the much easier Nuggets. And the Rockets want to keep any hopes they have of grabbing the second seed alive, if for nothing else than to improve Harden’s MVP chances.

Tune in 8:30 CST, possibly on TNT. This game is going to be crazy.

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Houston Rockets 135, Los Angeles Clippers 103: An Angel’s Wings Clipped

The recent history between the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers is storied and undeniable, linked by dashed playoff hopes, a blockbuster trade and the squashing of supposed beef. Let us recap the series of events:

May 2015: the Rockets, behind a stellar 19-point performance from Josh Smith and an improbable run in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals, capped off a comeback from being down 3 games to 1 to vanquish the Clippers en route to the Western Conference Finals. The collapse of the Clippers would be the beginning of the end of the “Lob City” era of the organization, setting up a blockbuster trade two years later.

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