The Rockets, as it stands, will face the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round—and they’ll hold home-court advantage in the series. Current standings suggest this series is nearly a lock to happen, although there's still time for it to change.
This bodes well for an appearance in the conference semifinals, as the Rockets have had Portland’s number this year. Houston has won three of the four head-to-head meetings between the teams and averaged 117.8 points in those four games.
Portland's style plays right into the Rockets’ favorite mode, encouraging an open-court shootout that James Harden and company specialize in. Barring a dramatic change in style or uncannily hot shooting from Portland, the Rockets will be favorites.
The next round brings more questionable prospects, as the Rockets would probably have to square off with the Thunder or the Spurs—the Clippers may still sneak into the two seed, but it’s a long shot.
Both teams are much more experienced, savvy contenders than the upstart Rockets. Houston’s won three games against the Spurs this year, but they haven’t seen San Antonio since they found their impressive late-season form, winning every game they played in March and racking up a 19-game winning streak.
The two meet on Monday, April 14, just in time for a playoff preview. Depending on how these two teams rest their respective stars, the matchup could a preview of how a series between them would go.
The Rockets recently beat the Thunder in Houston, too, but Russell Westbrook didn’t suit up to play, resting his injury-prone knee instead. Every time Westbrook does dress—and even sometimes when he doesn’t—the Thunder exercise a big brother’s prowess over the Rockets. They’ve got the antidote to Harden, Howard and the rest of the Rockets.
This is the way the dice rolls for nearly every team in the wicked Western Conference—some pairings are wildly favorable, others are nightmares, and the seeding barely reflects which matchup is which. There’s parity in this pool of excellence, and the Rockets (like everyone else) have only so many ways to swim to victory.