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.
The Los Angeles Lakers and the Houston Rockets have had quite a history in the last couple of seasons. It was the Ron Artest vs. Kobe Bryant showdown in the second round of last year’s playoffs. It would be a different title, but similar soundtrack if the two teams met again.
Ron Artest is no longer going against Kobe Bryant, but working with him. Trevor Ariza, who played a big role for the Lakers last year on their way to a championship, is now trying to do the same with the Houston Rockets.
The Lakers and Rockets have met three times this season and Los Angeles has gotten the better of Houston in two-out-of-three.
The Rockets can compete with the Lakers, but when it comes down to a series, Los Angeles just has too many players for Houston to try and defend.
Whether it is Bryant, Artest, Lamar Odom, or Andrew Bynum, the Lakers have enough weapons to overcome the Houston Rockets. They also have the personnel that can not only out-muscle the Rockets, but they can also play with Houston’s new run-and-gun style.
What hurts the Rockets most against the Lakers is three-point shooting and turnovers. They are just 20-of-79 from long range and have averaged 18.6 turnovers a game in their three meetings. This formula results in an early exit from the playoffs for the Rockets if they meet the Lakers in the first round.
The only way the Rockets can beat the Lakers is if they contain Bryant, don’t let any of his teammates give him help, take care of the ball, and have an All-Star performance from one or their starts.
When they beat the Lakers by ten in November, Aaron Brooks went for 33 points and Bryant scored only 18. The Rockets shot 41 percent from the field, while the Lakers shot just 33 percent from the field.
In a seven-game series the Rockets could steal one, maybe two. However, their youth and inexperience in the playoffs is no match for a team that is trying to win back-to-back championships.
The Nuggets and Rockets have met only one time so far this season and meet again for the last time this coming Wednesday.
In their only meeting against the Nuggets in December, a 101-111 loss, Carmelo Anthony was too much for the Rockets to handle. Denver’s All-Star forward finished with a game-high 38 points.
Anthony shot poorly from the field (9-of-23), but was near perfect from the foul line. He went 19-of-20 from the charity stripe. As a team, the Rockets were 18-of-20 from the free-throw line.
Despite Chauncey Billups missing most of the second half after suffering a groin injury, the Rockets could not take advantage of Billups’ backup, Anthony Carter. Carter lead the Nuggets to the 10-point victory. It didn’t really matter who was the point guard for Denver as no Rocket could stop Carmelo.
The Nuggets defense also forced the Rockets into making 21 turnovers, leading to 17 fast break points for Denver.
The Rockets and Nuggets have never met in the playoffs in the 21st century. A matchup between the two teams in the first round would most likely give Houston a big problem. Denver definitely has the size advantage over the Rockets and they also have the ability to play an up-tempo style of offense and defense.
The Houston Rockets and Phoenix Suns have met twice this season, and in both games the Suns managed to overcome a double-digit deficit to get the win.
These two teams really rely on getting the ball up the floor and getting their shot off quickly on offense. However, the youthful Rockets always end up learning from the NBA’s master of the run-and-gun.
In both games, the Suns have shot better than 50 percent from the field. While the Rockets have shot an impressive 44 percent, in both games, it has not been enough to keep up with the Suns.
Steve Nash has recorded a double-double in each game, going for 12 points and 16 assists in their first matchup in November, and 26 points and 12 assists in January.
As much as it is about offense for the Suns when they play, it has also been about defense against the Rockets. In their first meeting in November, Phoenix overcame a 15-point halftime deficit by holding Houston to just 9-for-28 from the field in the fourth quarter and had nine blocked shots in the game.
The Suns bench also proved to be much deeper than Houston’s, getting 34 points and 15 boards from their reserves.
In both games, Houston has gotten consistent play from only two players; Aaron Brooks and Carl Landry. In the November meeting, Brooks went for 16 points and 13 assists, while Landry set a career-high with 27 points and nine boards. In game two, Brooks and Landry set career-highs in scoring. Brooks finished with 34 points and Landry finished with 31 points.
In the January matchup, the Rockets had a 51-19 first-half run, and a 56-40 lead at one point. However, the Suns proved again which team was the best at the up-tempo style. They quickly closed the gap by making 13 of their 25 three-point attempts to catch-up and take the lead.
Again, the Suns recorded nine blocked shots against the Rockets proving, not only can they out-run Houston, but they can also physically intimidate the under-sized and young Houston squad.
The Rockets have also had trouble containing Amar’e Stoudemire and Jason Richardson. Richardson scored 20 points in both games, while Stoudemire finished with 23 and 25 points.
The Suns are currently the seventh seed in the Western Conference, meaning a first round matchup between the two teams is probably unlikely. Unless both teams end up being the fourth and fifth place seeds.
Phoenix and Houston have not met in the playoffs since 1995 when they beat the Suns 4-3 in the Conference Semifinals. Also the last time the Rockets won the NBA Championship was in 1995.
The Utah Jazz currently occupies the fourth seed in the Western Conference and has met the Rockets just one time this season. Houston spanked the Jazz on Nov. 1, 113-96.
All five of Houston’s starters scored in double figures and got 40 points from their reserves. The Rockets big men did an excellent job of slowing down Utah’s Carlos Boozer. He finished with only seven points on 1-of-6 shooting from the field.
Aaron Brooks led the way for Houston with 19 points and nine assists. Trevor Ariza finished with 15 points and Luis Scola had 14 points for the Rockets.
Houston shot 50 percent from the field and also shot superably from the three-point line, going 10-of-19 from downtown, while the Jazz went 3-of-11 from long range.
The Jazz’s Mehmet Okur got a game-high 21 points. Ronnie Brewer had 19 points, while Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko had 18 points each. However, Utah’s bench was a complete zero when compared to the Rockets reserves, scoring just 13 points.
The Rockets new style of run-and-gun was too much for Utah. Houston knows that without Yao Ming they cannot try to physically dominate teams. But, their youth and speed has proved to make them true contenders in the Western Conference.
Utah’s poor defensive play allowed the Rockets to move the ball up the court and get quick scores. The fast style of play by the Rockets also forced Utah out of defensive rebounding position. The Rockets took advantage and grabbed 15 offensive rebounds, and out-rebounded the Jazz, 46-38.
If these two teams did meet each other in the playoffs, it would be the Rockets looking for revenge. The Jazz beat the Rockets 4-3 in the first round of the 2007 playoffs and 4-2 in 2008.
For the Rockets, a matchup against the Jazz in the first round would be ideal. Their three-point shooting allows for them to stretch out the Jazz defense and prevent Utah from using their size advantage. Also, the Jazz have the roster needed to play the up-tempo style that the Rockets have adjusted to without Tracy McGrady and Ming.
The Portland Trailblazers and Houston Rockets are going through similar stories. Both have had to play while dealing with injuries to key personnel.
For the Rockets everyone knows their story, no Yao Ming and no Tracy McGrady. For the Blazers, the injury-bug has bitten the Blazers’ roster numerous during the season.
Portland has had only two people play in all 45 of Portland’s game this season, Martell Webster and Andre Miller. Travis Outlaw has only played in 11 games and Rudy Fernandez has played in just 26 games.
Even All-Star guard Brandon Roy has missed five games because of injury. Greg Oden went down for the season with a knee injury in a game against the Houston Rockets in December.
The Blazers and Rockets have met three times this season and Portland has taken two-of-three over Houston.
The two teams met on opening night in Portland and the Blazers had their way with the Rockets. The Rockets really had no identity yet on opening night. They hadn't figured out how to play without Ming and McGrady yet. The Blazers size was too much for the Rockets, as the Blazers got an opening day win, 96-87.
The Rockets new run-and-gun style of offense was nowhere to be found opening night, and the Trailblazers size quickly overwhelmed the Yao-less Houston Rockets. The Rockets were out-rebounded 51 to 33 and the Blazers had 12 blocked shots to Houston’s two.
The Rockets would get their chance at revenge very quickly as the two teams met just four days later in Houston. This time Houston’s run-and-gun was ready for its debut.
The Rockets dictated the pace in this game and forced the Blazers to go small in an effort to keep up. Once that happened, it was all Rockets. The Rockets had only 11 fast break points, but the Blazers just had two.
Houston also found their range, knocking down 12-of-24 from downtown, while the Blazers were just 6-of-18 from the three-point line.
Trevor Ariza exploded for a career-high 33 points, including five three-pointers. Aaron Brooks also got into the scoring act shooting 10-16 from the field, 4-of-6 from downtown to finish with 28 points to go with his eight assists.
The fast-paced Rockets were too much for Portland to handle as Houston evened up the series with a 111-107 win.
When the two teams met for the third time in December, the difference came from the hand of Roy. He hit a buzzer-beater layup over Ariza to get Portland the win, 90-89.
The Rockets had the game in the bag after Luis Scola made a 12-foot jumper with 9 seconds left on the clock to put Houston up 89-88.
But, Roy and Portland were left with enough time on the clock to run a play and drive a dagger through the hearts of Houston.
Oden went down with his season-ending knee injury just 4:15 into the game. His presence was greatly missed as the Rockets outscored the Blazers 48 to 30 in the paint.
Neither team shot well from the perimeter, and as it is usually the case of most close games, it came down to free throws. Houston went 17-of-23 from the charity stripe, while the Blazers were 22-of-26.
This would be terrific first round matchup of two up-and-coming young teams in the NBA battling it out in front of their fans for a right to move on to the second round.
Ultimately, the Rockets would get the better of the Blazers in a seven-game series. Right now it’s hard to say who will even be healthy for the Blazers. We know the Rockets won’t have Ming and McGrady, but we also know that they have figured out how to play and win without them.
For the Blazers, they have also been able to maintain in the West in spite of all their injuries. However, the Rockets do have veterans on the team in Shane Battier, Chuck Hayes, and Brian Cook who have plenty of playoff experience. These three combined have played in 95 playoff games.
As a team, the Blazers have played in just 109 playoff games. Reserves Andre Miller and Juan Howard account for 50 of the 109 games, or 45 percent of Portland’s entire playoff experience.
The Houston Rockets are a combined 3-3 in their six matchups between the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs. After losing their first three games, two to Dallas and one to San Antonio, the Rockets have won three-in-a-row against their in-state rivals.
The Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets have met four times with Dallas getting the better of Houston in the first two. The first loss was at Dallas 103-121 and then the Mavericks traveled to Houston for the second game where they embarrassed the Rockets, 130-99.
In their opening match at Dallas, the Mavericks came in firing on all cylinders. They shot 55 percent from the field and made 22-of-23 free throws. Eric Dampier had a game-high 20 rebounds and the Mavericks scored 60 points in the paint.
In the second game, the Dallas Mavericks were more than willing to accommodate the Rockets and their fast break whenever possible offense.
The Mavericks shot 65 percent the three-point line, while their defense limited the play of point guards Kyle Lowry and Aaron Brooks. Brooks just played in 26 minutes, and he and Lowry combined for nine turnovers.
In their meeting at Dallas, Dirk Nowitzki played only 11 minutes after his forehead collided with Houston’s Carl Landry’s teeth. The Rockets took advantage of a Dirk-less Mavericks and Brooks and Lowry scored 51 points each as the Rockets got their first win over the Mavericks, 116-108.
The Rockets squeaked by the Mavericks 97-94 in their latest matchup. Brooks was able to stay away from the Mavericks defenders on his way to 30 points and six three-pointers. The Rockets had 19 fast break points, and made 8 more three’s than Dallas.
In a seven-game series the Mavericks would get the better of the Rockets. They can play the Rockets fast break style and are big enough to grind it out and bully the smaller Houston team. The Rockets could do without a first round matchup against Dallas.
However, the San Antonio Spurs are a much different story for the Houston Rockets when compared to the Dallas Mavericks. This is an in-state matchup that the Rockets would not mind seeing in the first round.
The Spurs do not have a significant size advantage over Houston, and can get caught in lapses on defense when the Rockets get their fast break warmed up.
When Houston beat the Spurs 116-109, Kyle Lowry and Aaron Brooks had 23 points each. The Spurs defense was caught out of position all night long, giving up 27 fast break points and 52 points in the paint.
The only reason the Rockets are not 2-0 against San Antonio this season is because they sent the Spurs to the foul line 34 times in their first meeting.
The Spurs turned the game into a halfcourt mosh pit. The Rockets defense looked confused in the halfcourt set, and they were left scrambling back into position and hacking away at San Antonio.
However, the Rockets did keep it close because the Spurs just attempted 5 three-pointers, while Houston made eight.
The Spurs do not like outside shots and moving the ball up the court period. If the two teams met in the playoffs, Houston would have much more experience having played a full season’s worth of their fast break offense.
Houston’s love for the outside shot can keep the Rockets in the game in case the Spurs are able to force them into a halfcourt set, meaning a first round matchup with the Spurs wouldn’t be so bad.