As the season draws to a close and the excitement of the Playoffs looms just around the corner, the Houston Rockets and their fans are entering into a bizarre, gray space. This is a place reserved almost exclusively for teams good enough to sit near the top of the standings (and teams that aren’t tanking but miss the playoffs badly), and is one of the few downsides of such a season. The Rockets are passing into limbo, a period of time in which the games don’t matter. It won’t last long, it won’t be very exciting, and it’s easy to get frustrated. The thing to remember is that everything is fine… even if they drop some games you think they shouldn’t.
Heading into Monday morning, the Rockets sit atop a pile of 51 wins (and 25 losses), the last win coming from a strange limbo meeting with the Denver Nuggets. The Rockets are two losses behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the third spot and three losses ahead of the Portland Trail Blazers for the five seed. Due to how many games each team has left, this means that the Rockets are all but locked into the 4 seed. There are games left, and there are wins to tally, but the consequences are all but gone. This is the void. This is the calm, and the storm isn’t coming for 13 days.
The Clippers’ “magic number” for clinching the third seed is now 2, which means that they need a combination of Clippers wins and Rockets losses equaling 2 for the rest of the season to assure that Houston can’t pass them. The Thunder, as an aside, also have a magic number of 2 over the Rockets, and the Spurs are already uncatchable by Houston. Unless the Clippers were to lose at least 3 of their remaining 4 games, Houston can’t catch up. Houston’s 3 seed hopes are liable to continue for a few more days, but there’s just little to no chance of moving up any more.
The Blazers, for their part, are gamely hanging around, making it ever more likely that Houston meets them in the first round. With the Blazers behind by 3 in the loss column, things get hairy on that end, too. Houston has the tiebreaker over Portland, meaning that the Blazers have to hope the Rockets fall to at least 29 losses, and that’s assuming that the Blazers win the rest of their games, including games against Golden State and the Clippers. Houston’s magic number against the Blazers is 4, and in case it matters, their number over the 6th seed Warriors is 2.
Even if, somehow, the Rockets were to let the Blazers creep back into the fourth seed, the only effect that would have is a loss of home court advantage in the first round, something the Rockets don’t want to give up but which they aren’t depending upon.
What does all this mean? It means that there’s no realistic way that the Rockets can move up or down the standings, especially after another win. What does that mean? That means that the games do nothing. Once those magic numbers have been activated (and they will), The Rockets will face a few games with no bearing on anything whatsoever. The only possible ramification at this point is whether the Rockets would host the Pacers or vice versa in a hypothetical Finals matchup.
The real downside is injury and rest. The Rockets have some injured players and some players who could use a spot of rest. It may feel defeatist and create uncomfortable overtime situations when the Rockets sit and rest key players, but that’s better than having there be a chance of injury or other unhappy surprise. As they press on through Limbo, expect the Rockets to start resting players like James Harden and Chandler Parsons, two important pieces that need to be fresh and healthy come later this month.
Limbo may feel boring, frustrating and pointless, but it’s actually a boon. When in Limbo, teams get to rest, to experiment with benches and rotations. Winning is immaterial for the first time in months, and it’s hard to see them skirt close to losses. Putting numbers in the wins column is fun, and good for morale, and it’s surely better than piling losses, but none of that matters in Limbo. The only thing that matters here, in the edges of Limbo and beyond, is what lies on the other side of this two week period. The only thing that matters now is the Playoffs. Limbo is just a pit stop.