The NBA is past the halfway point in the regular season and with every passing game, the playoff picture becomes clearer.
The Western Conference continues its dominance over the Eastern Conference, having 11 teams with a record of .500 or better, while the East has only seven.
Out West, the Los Angeles Lakers remain king with a record of 33-11, trailing just the Cleveland Cavaliers by two games for the most wins in the NBA.
Following the Lakers are the Denver Nuggets and the Dallas Mavericks as the second and third place teams in the West. The Nuggets trail the Lakers by three games and the Mavericks are right behind Denver at four games out of first place.
After the first three spots in the Western Conference, the remaining five playoff spots left are anything but sure locks. The Utah Jazz currently occupy the fourth seed, but only have a two-game lead over the eighth and final playoff taken over this week by the Memphis Grizzlies.
In between the Trailblazers and the Rockets, in order from the fifth place team to the seventh place team, are the Portland Trailblazers, San Antonio Spurs, Phoenix Suns, and Memphis.
Unlike the Eastern Conference, whose fourth place Orlando Magic has almost a full six games over the fifth place Miami Heat, the Western Conference is very tight, making every game in the second half of the season effect the West’s standings.
A poor second half of the season could mean the difference between a favorable and an unfavorable first round match-up for the Blazers, Spurs, Jazz, Suns, and Memphis. It could take just one losing skid to move you from a 4 vs. 5 match-up, to finding yourself in a first round matchup against the defending champion Lakers and an early exit from the playoffs.
The Houston Rockets are 24-20 and find themselves just half-a-game out of the West’s eighth and final spot. The Rockets have played all season without Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, and have still managed to find a way to survive in the highly competitive Western Conference.
Despite their success so far, they have a very tight window that is still open for a spot in the playoffs. They are close to Memphis while they are also tied with the New Orleans Hornets and Oklahoma City Thunder in ninth place.
On the flip side, the Rockets are just two games behind Utah in the fourth spot. After a solid 20-13 record from October to December, the Rockets are 4-7 since the start of 2010 and need to quickly rebound.
And not just so that they will make the playoffs, but so that they can take advantage of their competitive conference, and find a way to get a more favorable match-up in the playoffs. This season, the Rockets are a combined 6-10 against the top seven teams in the Western Conference.
The Lakers, Nuggets, and Suns are three teams that the Rockets do not want to see in the first round. They are just 1-2 against Los Angeles, got handled easily by Denver in December, and likewise in both their meetings with Phoenix this season.
Each of these three teams poses unfavorable match-ups and they have the experience needed to overcome a young and inexperienced Rockets team.
While they need to avoid those three teams, Portland and Utah are two teams that the Rockets would feel comfortable with in a first round matchup.
They are just 1-2 against the Trailblazers, however their first loss to Portland was on Houston’s opening night and in December (a one-point defeat).
In their only meeting against the Jazz in November, the Rockets embarrassed the Jazz, 113-96. Carlos Boozer was held to just seven points on 1-of-6 shooting and forced Utah into committing 19 turnovers.
Now, here is a closer look at who the Rockets do and don’t want to see in the first round and why.