Houston Rockets: 7 Do-or-Die Games Remaining
The NBA Playoffs begin on April 28th.
That's 31 days away.
Each team will play an average of 17 games in those 31 days—a lot of playing in not a lot of time.
This season's Western Conference is insanely compact. The 4th-seeded Los Angeles Clippers sit just three games ahead of the 10th-seeded Phoenix Suns. One bad week can see your team slip all the way out of the playoff spots.
However, a select few of those 15 games have increased meaning. These seven games will shape the remainder of the Houston Rockets' season and determine whether or not they make it into the postseason.
Game 1: March 30th vs Memphis Grizzlies
On March 30th the Rockets will play host to the currently 6th-seeded Memphis Grizzlies.
The Grizzlies sit at 27-21, though just 4-6 in their last 10 games. The team has struggled with cohesion since the return of Zach Randolph from long-term injury. The Grizzlies had been rolling nicely before his return, which has derailed the team's direction on offense somewhat.
This game is a big one for both teams, as a win for the Rockets would see them leapfrog the Grizzlies in the Western standings as Houston would then have two more wins than the Grizzlies.
A win over a playoff rival is also a big moral booster, and should these two teams somehow end up playing each other, home-court advantage could be key.
Game 2: April 11th vs Utah Jazz
April 11th sees the Utah Jazz roll into Houston.
The Jazz currently reside in the 7th spot, tied with the Houston Rockets at the time of this writing.
This game is another big one for both sides, with each team having the opportunity to both bolster their own playoff credentials while simultaneously dealing a savage blow to an opponent's.
This is also a battle for the tiebreaker—a massive deal this season with the West being as tight as it is. Houston won the first meeting 101-85 at home in late February, while the Jazz evened the season series with a 104-83 mauling ten days later in Salt Lake City.
With the two teams running so close all season, a win in the remaining game is almost a must for the Rockets' playoff hopes.
Game 3: April 13th vs Phoenix Suns
April 13th, just two days after the Rockets host the Utah Jazz, the team will head out to face the Phoenix Suns in a game that could decide whether the Suns will be playing golf or basketball at the end of April.
The Suns lie outside the Western Conference playoff spots at the moment, but at just 1.5 games behind Houston in eighth, they are by no means out of contention.
The two teams have met three times already, with Houston winning two at home and dropping one in Phoenix already. Another tiebreak-clinching win is paramount in a battle between two of the West's perennial mid-table bruisers. Both the Rockets and Suns have been bouncing between the playoffs and high-end lottery picks for a handful of years now.
The big battle to watch out for here is of course Steve Nash's match-up with break-through Rockets point guard Kyle Lowry.
Games 4 and 5: April 15th @ Denver Nuggets/April 16th vs Denver Nuggets
The Rockets' biggest pair of games by far will be their back-to-back, home-and-home series meetings with the Denver Nuggets.
Denver is currently outside the playoffs, but again only by a fraction. They are tied up with Houston and Utah at 27-23 for what would be the 7th seed.
With two games against each other, the Rockets and Nuggets can go a long way in shaping each others' fortunes. Denver's exciting young team is playing brilliant fast-moving basketball under George Karl, and another playoff experience seems the deserved outcome for all the hard work put in.
However, in Houston they have an interesting match-up: with Nene gone, the Nuggets have no real low-post presence (JaVale McGee is too raw right now) and have become reliant on good ball movement leading to open looks from around the perimeter.
If Houston can clog up the passing lanes, they can stifle the Denver offense and force turnovers, leading to easy points and critical victories in the final ten days of the regular season.
Game 6: April 18th @ Dallas Mavericks
With just six days and four games left after this one, the Rockets will face the defending-champion Dallas Mavericks in a meeting of the two Texan teams.
Houston lost the tiebreaker to the Mavericks in last night's loss in Dallas, but can at least recover some pride and secure a massive victory as the season reaches its climax.
Ideally for Dallas, their postseason status will be guaranteed by April 18th, but as this season has proved, nothing can be taken for granted.
Dallas currently sits one game ahead of Houston, and whether this will remain the case until their face-off in April is up in the air. If it does, a win for the Rockets would send them into a virtual tie with the defending champions and throw a real spanner in the works of the Western Conference seedings.
Game 7: April 26th vs New Orleans Hornets
No, I'm not saying that the New Orleans Hornets will be in the playoff hunt come April 26th.
I'm saying that the final game of the season could be the defining moment of the Houston Rockets' 2011-12 regular season.
If postseason participation is still unconfirmed, the Rockets will be relishing playing the lottery-bound Hornets on the final day. Although a win is pretty much expected, there is no telling how a team will respond to the pressures of having to win to secure a playoff berth.
The Rockets could be faced with having to secure a victory to avoid falling from fourth to eighth, or even face up to a win meaning home-court advantage through the first round.
Yes, even the final game of a 66-game schedule has significant meaning.