With two games to go before the playoffs, the Houston Rockets face a quandary. Should head coach Kevin McHale rest his starters (and key bench players) for these last two games? If so, how much? Perhaps most importantly, how does Portland’s overtime win over Golden State figure into it? Some teams will simply shut down before the playoffs while some bear down on the starters. Which path will the Rockets take, and more importantly, which path should they take?
As far as predicting the next couple games, the safe bet is on minutes for the starters. McHale has never been shy when it comes to minutes load, and it seems unlikely that he would change that up for two games. Patrick Beverley and Dwight Howard were on a minutes restriction after returning from their respective injuries. That minutes restriction took exactly one game to get blown out of the water when the Rockets needed contributions from them late in a tight game against the depleted Pelicans. McHale might surprise, but the safe money is on a playoff rotation for the next two games.
The issue, then, is whether this is best for the Rockets. With the 5 seed Trail Blazers beating the 6 seed Warriors, the Rockets still have to win a game or hope for a Blazers loss if Houston wants home court in the first round. The Blazers only have one game left on the last day of the season against the Clippers. Unless the Pelicans beat the Thunder, the Clippers won’t have a chance to catch up to the Thunder, locking the Clippers into the 3rd seed. In the far more likely scenario that the Thunder take care of business against New Orleans, The Blazers would stand a realistic chance of facing a Clippers team that’s ambivalent to a loss. In fact, the Clippers might even prefer to see the Rockets lose home court advantage on the off chance that this helps eliminate the Rockets in the first round.
The easy way to avoid all this guesswork, then, is to simply beat the San Antonio Spurs and be locked into home court. In theory, the Rockets could lose to the Spurs, beat the Pelicans on the last day and be fine, but leaving anything to chance at this point seems like an invitation for trouble, especially given how iffy the effort level has been in seemingly throwaway games. Beating the Spurs, of course, is easier said than done.
The good news is that that head coach Gregg Popovich is liable to rest all his starters, especially with homecourt locked all the way through the playoffs for San Antonio. For the Spurs, a chance to rest their aging core and let the bench face real competition is far more valuable than an extraneous win. The bad news is that the Spurs bench is still deadly. a focused, intense B team from San Antonio is more than a match for an apathetic, rusty A team from Houston, especially if Chandler Parsons continues to sit due to injury. The Rockets may still find themselves in a dogfight in their second to last game, a time period when they expected to be coasting.
That coasting itself complicates matters, as it isn’t clear whether rest or rust is the bigger priority. If Beverley and Howard hadn’t gone down with health issues, the Rockets probably would have already been locked into the 4 seed and probably would be using this time to rest, not the earlier part of April. As it is, the starting lineup and the playoff rotation may need a game or two to round back into practice and ramp up the effort level. Unlike Miami or San Antonio, the Rockets can’t just jump back into the fray with no chemistry or gameplan concerns. Practice matters at this point, and the Rockets may be well served by playing normal minutes, even if the games meant nothing.
The best middle ground may be a scenario in which the starters play for about ⅔ of their normal minutes before sitting to let a rotation of bench and deep bench players take over. In fact, the Rio Grande Valley Viper group that comprises the end of the roster has been remarkably effective and in fact nearly turned a blowout loss into a win against Denver. That would give the rotations time to settle back in while minimizing fatigue and lowering opportunity for injury. The best case scenario would be a win against the Spurs, and a big enough margin so that the starters sit early.
We should expect, then, a protracted dogfight ending with a Spurs win, because events going according to plan just wouldn’t be any fun.