Where Things Stood: When the 2019-20 NBA season was abruptly stopped by the COVID-19 outbreak, the Houston Rockets were 40-24 and tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference’s sixth seed. They were 6-4 over their previous ten games as they were working to adjust to the small ball style they adopted when they traded away Clint Capela.
What’s Coming Up: The good news for Rockets fans is that Houston is definitely going to make the playoffs. That’s especially good because the eight games they will play to determine seeding are incredibly tough. The bad news is that there are an awful lot of quality big men waiting to feast on Houston’s non-existent front line (sorry, Tyson Chandler!). The worst possible scenario for Houston would be to face either Los Angeles team in the first round of the playoffs, but all indications are that they will be forced to do just that. Here’s a breakdown of Houston’s qualifying round schedule.
Game 1: Dallas Mavericks – The only thing that could consistently slow down the Mavs this season was the injury bug, and given that they’ve had months to get everyone healthy, that won’t be a factor when play begins on July 31st. Luka Doncic has gone from Rookie of the Year to MVP candidate in the blink of an eye, and the Mavs have the size and versatility to make life extremely tough for Houston.
Game 2: Milwaukee Bucks – The hiring of former Gregg Popovich assistant Mike Budenholzer seems to have been the only thing missing in terms of bringing Milwaukee’s incredible depth and talent together. When the season was suspended the Bucks were cutting through their schedule as easily as Land O Lakes butter removed their Native American girl from her land. Their +11.2 point differential was by far the best in the league and Giannis Antetokuompo is rumored to already have the 2019-20 MVP award in his trophy case.
Game 3: Portland TrailBlazers – A year ago the Blazers were a team on the rise, but devastating injuries to their front line made them a bubble team in this year’s playoff race. Few teams have benefited as much as Portland in terms of the schedule interruption, and with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back in the mix this could be Houston’s most interesting game. Can they really use small ball to hold off teams with an array of quality big men? Portland has the frontcourt and backcourt to compete with any team in the league when healthy.
Game 4: Los Angeles Lakers – LeBron James has taken his lumps during his brief tenure with the Lakers, but anyone who believes he will go quietly in Orlando is gravely mistaken. Rested, healthy, and with former Cavs championship teammate JR Smith in the mix to help three-point shooting, LeBron and company will be as tough an out as any team in the NBA. Can James Harden and Russell Westbrook knock him out? This game will go a long way in terms of answering that question.
Game 5: Sacramento Kings – The Kings were playing some of their best basketball of the season when play was suspended, having won seven of their past ten games. Unfortunately, they play in an extremely deep Western Conference that doesn’t give them any nights off. With De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield putting up star-caliber numbers the Kings really do look like they are one big man away from being back in the annual playoff discussion for good. As things stand, their strengths are also Houston’s, and the Rockets’ backcourt All-Stars are vastly better than Sacramento’s up-and-comers.
Game 6: San Antonio Spurs – After two decades of unprecedented success, the Spurs are now mired in a fight with Murphy’s Law. Everything that can go wrong has gone wrong, from the bizarre Kawhi Leonard episodes to the lack of chemistry between LaMarcus Aldridge and his young point guards. Aldridge is not expected to make an appearance in Orlando, so this will be an exercise in futility for San Antonio. This is a game that will likely allow Harden and Westbrook to get some rest before the game gets much past half time.
Game 7: Indiana Pacers – The biggest issue for the Pacers this season has been the lackluster return of Victor Oladipo from injury. When the season was suspended he had appeared in just 13 games and was struggling to find his shot. It’s assumed that one he’s up to 100% he and Malcom Brogdon will form one of the best backcourts in the NBA, but what will they look like after so much time off? It promises to be an interesting match for the backcourt-heavy Rockets, but expect Houston to own it this time around,
Game 8: Philadelphia 76ers – On paper the Sixers should be one of the best teams in the NBA, especially since they play in a conference where there are only six teams even above .500. They have one of the best big men in the league in Joel Embiid they have one of the best utility small forwards in the game in Tobias Harris, and they have veterans like Al Horford to help their young core in crucial situations. The dysfunction in Philly may well prevent them from using their size to neutralize Houston’s small ball attack.
Prediction: If there has ever been a harder eight-game stretch to predict, I can’t recall when that would have been. So much depends on which players choose to risk exposure to COVID-19 in the nation’s hot spot (Florida), which players stayed in the best shape and which teams comes together the fastest in a pressure-packed situation where there is really no home court advantage. All things being equal, the Rockets should win half of these games. Sacramento and San Antonio present very little challenge, and Indian and Philly should also be winnable games for Houston. Will that be enough to keep them out of a bracket featuring either LA team in round one of the playoffs? Probably not.
Bill Ingram is Executive NBA Editor for BackSportsPage.com, co-host of The Hardwood Huddle podcast and has covered the NBA for more than 20 years.
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