For the Houston Rockets to make a lengthy run in the NBA playoffs, they will need to draw the right opponents. How the team is seeded could be the determining factor between a first-round exit and going deep in the postseason.
Houston is currently holding down the No. 4 spot in the Western Conference with a record of 48-22. If the season were to end today, the Rockets would open the playoffs with a highly entertaining series against the Portland Trail Blazers.
The final weeks of the regular season will be interesting to watch. Houston has 12 games remaining on their schedule. They are 1.5 games behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the third seed and trail the Oklahoma City Thunder by four games for the No. 2 slot.
The Rockets are also six games behind the San Antonio Spurs for the top seed and the Southwest Division title. However, with the Spurs currently playing their best basketball of the season and riding a 14-game winning streak, it would take some extremely good fortune for Houston to close that gap.
With the playoffs in mind, it's time we take a look at who would be the best and worst possible opponents for the Houston Rockets. We'll start on the bright side first before finishing with some bad news.
Best-Case Scenario for Houston Rockets
In theory, the current playoff seeding would suit the Rockets just fine. They would start off with the Portland Trail Blazers. Houston finished the regular-season series at 3-1 against LaMarcus Aldridge and Co.
On paper, Houston has an answer and then some for everything Portland could throw at them. The Blazers have the second-best offense in the NBA (107.3 points per game) and the league's best rebounding unit (46.2 boards a night). The Rockets are third and eighth in those respective categories.
Portland has a devastating two-headed monster in Aldridge and point guard Damian Lillard. In return, Houston will utilize the defensive stylings of Dwight Howard and Omer Asik inside as well as Patrick Beverley to try and contain Lillard.
Meanwhile, Houston also has Chandler Parsons, Terrence Jones and the league's fifth-best scorer (24.9 ppg) in James Harden to throw at a Portland defense that allows 103.4 points per game (23rd in the NBA).
The Blazers have the tools to make this a competitive series, but Houston's bevy of weapons on offense should win out.
From there, Houston would enter a battle of Texas with the San Antonio Spurs in Round 2. The Spurs are the hottest team in the league right now and hold the best record at 54-16. However, the Rockets have beaten the Spurs in all three games they've played so far this season with the finale coming up on Apr. 14 in Houston.
That final showdown will be a nice litmus test for both teams. It will be interesting to see if Houston still has San Antonio's number even while the Spurs are on fire. While no team wants to face an opponent that's riding high, the Spurs are the most favorable of the potential second-round foes.
The Rockets haven't fared very well against teams like the Thunder and the Clippers. However, Houston's youth and athleticism is a plus against an aging San Antonio team. You also can't overlook the confidence factor of a team facing an opponent that hasn't beat them yet this season.
That's not to say the Spurs will be a walk in the park. They are excellent defensively and fundamentally. They also have a huge advantage in the coaching department, where Spurs mastermind Gregg Popovich is head and shoulders above the Rockets' Kevin McHale.
Still, the Rockets' best chance of making the conference finals is the hope that the Spurs defense can't contain Houston's offense in a seven-game series. With the right bounces, Houston could pull off the upset.
If the playoff seeding changes in the next few weeks, a couple of other favorable opponents for Houston would be the Golden State Warriors and the Dallas Mavericks. The Warriors currently sit sixth in the West but are only a half-game behind the Blazers.
Dallas has a half-game edge over the Phoenix Suns for the eighth spot. Dallas could make a run at the fifth seed, as the Mavericks are only two games behind Portland. Whether the Mavericks move up is a moot point as Houston would probably make short work of Dallas in Round 1.
As for Golden State, the Warriors are 1-2 against the Rockets, and their lone victory was a three-point overtime thriller on Feb. 20. It would be a battle of two balanced starting rotations, but Houston has a slight edge in their second unit. That kind of depth is crucial in the postseason.
Worst-Case Scenario for the Houston Rockets
Before we get to the obvious trouble that would await Houston in the second round, let's start off with the first-round opponent the Rockets should avoid.
The Memphis Grizzlies are holding down the seventh seed in the West but are just 1.5 games behind Golden State for No. 6 and two games behind Portland for the fifth spot. When healthy, the Grizzlies are a problem on both ends of the court.
Grizzlies center and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol has struggled with injuries most of the season. If he can get healthy by the playoffs, he has the chops to give Dwight Howard fits one-on-one. That would leave power forward Zach Randolph to take advantage of second-year man Terrence Jones.
On the perimeter, Tayshaun Prince may have lost a few steps from his glory days, but his postseason moxie can't be overlooked. With his long and lanky frame, he's the kind of pesky defender who can give Chandler Parsons trouble.
Memphis also has one of the league's best perimeter defenders in Tony Allen to guard James Harden. Finally, Mike Conley has a clear advantage over his counterpart, Patrick Beverley.
Barring some extreme misfortune that would force Houston to face the Clippers in the first round, Memphis would be the worst potential opening draw for the Rockets. In previous years, the Grizzlies have proven to be a tough out in the playoffs, and that shouldn't be any different this season.
Beyond Memphis, the two teams that have made life miserable for Houston have been the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers. Together, they are 6-0 against the Rockets this season.
The Clippers get one last crack at the Rockets on March 29, while Oklahoma City's finale with Houston will take place on Apr. 4.
Houston's porous perimeter defense would allow Thunder small forward Kevin Durant to have a field day. In the three times he's faced the Rockets this season, here is how Durant has fared:
- 33 points on 11-of-17 shooting, 13 rebounds and five assists (Dec. 29)
- 36 points on 8-of-21 from the field, 18-of-20 from the free-throw line, seven assists and five rebounds (Jan. 16)
- 42 points on 12-of-22 shooting, five rebounds and four assists (March 11)
Of those three games, Durant's tag team partner Russell Westbrook only played in the most recent showdown. That night, Westbrook poured in an additional 24 points, while throwing in seven assists and four steals for good measure.
From a storyline perspective, a series between Houston and Oklahoma City would be appointment television. There's the dynamic of James Harden facing his old team as well as the history between Westbrook and Patrick Beverley.
However, if the Thunder have Westbrook for a series against the Rockets, Oklahoma City should make short work of Houston. While Houston has a ton of star power, it pales in comparison to the Durant-Westbrook one-two punch.
That's not even mentioning the presence of shot-blocker Serge Ibaka patrolling the paint.
As for the Clippers, installing Doc Rivers as their head coach makes them a different team from the one that's disappointed in the playoffs the last two seasons. Rivers' influence has been evident in power forward Blake Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan's evolution this season.
While Los Angeles struggles on the boards (17th in rebounds per game), it has more than enough balance and depth to handle the Rockets. Houston would need a transcendent series from its big three to pull off the upset.
If the Rockets can manage to hold off on facing Los Angeles or Oklahoma City until the conference finals, the uptick in confidence and momentum could help their chances. However, if the regular season is any indication, the Clippers and Thunder seem to have the Rockets' number.
The Rockets have 12 games left to prepare themselves for the rigors of the NBA postseason. During that stretch, they will go up against their three biggest challengers in San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Los Angeles.
Those games will be good indicators for how ready this Houston team is. The depth of the Western Conference makes it hard for any team to have a favorable road to the NBA Finals.
However, Houston's best path would be to draw a team like Portland, Dallas or Golden State in the first round. From there, they could attempt to overthrow the Spurs by using their high-tempo offense to wear San Antonio down. After that, they can throw everything but the kitchen sink at Los Angeles or Oklahoma City.
On the flip side, an opening matchup with Memphis would be a nightmare for the Rockets, as would playing the Clippers or Thunder before Houston can gain a head of steam.
Much like the NCAA tournament, making a deep run in the NBA playoffs ultimately comes down to who you draw. These next few weeks will be huge in determining the landscape of the Western Conference bracket.