The Western Conference playoff race is coming to a head, and with a little more than two weeks remaining in the NBA season, the Houston Rockets still have a lot to play for.
Unfortunately for the Orlando Magic, the playoffs were never in sight this season. At 19-55, Orlando is staring down the barrel of a potential last-place finish in the Eastern Conference and a selection at the top of the draft in June.
Injuries have been a factor in the Magic’s struggles this year, but there’s no denying the lack of talent that has hobbled Orlando’s season. With nine losses in their last 10 games, there isn’t much of a silver lining save a high lottery pick; only one game left on the schedule is against a non-playoff opponent.
Where: Toyota Center, Houston
When: Monday, April 1, at 8 p.m. ET
Records: Orlando Magic (19-55), Houston Rockets (40-33)
Television: CSN Houston
Betting Lines: Unavailable as of Sunday, March 31, at 2:30 p.m. ET
Injuries (via ESPN.com): James Harden (ankle, DTD), Jameer Nelson (ankle, DTD), Nikola Vucevic (concussion, out), Arron Afflalo (hamstring, out)
Key Storyline: Something to Play for
Orlando will look to pick up the pieces this offseason, but Houston is very much still in the playoff hunt.
The Rockets have a 2.5-game lead on the eighth-place Utah Jazz and sit just 1.5 games back of the sixth-place Golden State Warriors. With a strong push in the final two-plus weeks of the season, Houston will be in position to jump the Warriors in the standings—though it may not want to.
A No. 6 seed in the playoffs would mean a first-round paring with the red-hot Denver Nuggets. There isn’t a favorable alternative, but the Rockets remain winless against the Nuggets this season. Should they match up with Oklahoma City (with a seventh-place finish), the Rockets would at least face a team they have bested in the regular season.
Still, no team intentionally drops games for playoff positioning, and Houston will no doubt be looking to gear up for a final push. Orlando offers an opportunity to get off to a strong start, especially with Sacramento and Portland on the slate before an April 6 matchup with Denver.
Players to Watch
Houston and Orlando have squared off once this season—a 118-110 Rockets victory on March 1. In that contest, Harden tallied 24 points, eight assists, seven rebounds and three steals, packing the stat sheet from top to bottom.
While he had an impressive statistical game, Harden couldn’t get much going from the field. He was 10-of-11 from the free-throw line, but 7-of-18 shooting from the field and 0-of-5 from behind the arc severely limited his scoring production.
Were it not for big contributions from Chandler Parsons (21 points), Carlos Delfino (21 points) and Donatas Motiejunas (17 points) in that contest, Houston may have been in some trouble.
Harden has to make shots for the Rockets to feel comfortable against Orlando. With the No. 28 defense in the league (102.3 points allowed per game), the Rockets can’t afford to cool off at the offensive end.
It’s also worth noting that Harden played 42 minutes in Houston’s previous meeting with the Magic. At this point in the season, the Rockets may try to give their star a little extra rest in their final nine games.
One of Orlando’s most pleasant surprises this season, 20-year-old Tobias Harris has been terrific since joining the team in the deal that sent J.J. Redick to the Bucks.
In his 19 games with the Magic, Harris has averaged 16.3 points and eight rebounds per game on 46.1 percent shooting from the field. He still has a lot of developing to do, but he has shown a lot of potential with regular playing time in Orlando (34.2 minutes per game).
The 6’8” forward has been especially hot in the last four games, averaging 22.5 points and 8.75 rebounds in that span. Against Washington on March 29, Harris recorded 30 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in a 97-92 victory.
With the size of a perimeter player and the toughness to bang in the paint, Harris presents an interesting mismatch for a lot of teams. As poorly as Houston has defended hybrid forwards at times this season, don’t be surprised if Harris has another strong performance on Monday.
PG: Jeremy Lin
SG: James Harden
SF: Chandler Parsons
PF: Donatas Motiejunas
C: Omer Asik
PG: Jameer Nelson
SG: E’Twaun Moore
SF: Maurice Harkless
PF: Tobias Harris
C: Kyle O’Quinn
Prediction: Houston 106, Orlando 96
Any team can win on a given night in the NBA, but Orlando doesn’t have a great chance of upending Houston on Monday, especially on the road with Jameer Nelson hobbled by an ankle injury.
Despite Houston’s offensive prowess, the Rockets haven’t been especially potent at the offensive end of late, topping 100 points just once in the last five games. Expect this to be a lower-scoring affair than the two teams’ last meeting.
Ultimately, though, Orlando doesn’t have enough firepower to stave off the Rockets in Houston. As long as Harden and Parsons play consistently enough to pace the offense, Houston should come away with a 10-plus point victory and an added boost heading down the home stretch.