The Houston Rockets come to Orlando as the team with probably the most at stake. They swung the huge off-season deal for Russell Westbrook and currently sit just 6th in the Western Conference, ironically tied with the Oklahoma City Thunder. They also traded away center Clint Capela earlier this season and now have no true center.
The Rockets have fully committed to small ball and in a shortened season, they will either catch teams off guard in such a weird situation and win the championship they’ve been making all these moves to get or again fizzle out and sit through another off season of questions about James Harden, Russell Westbrook and the team’s front office. (Note: Westbrook tested positive for COVID-19 this week but is expected to be back and healthy by the time the Rockets start playing their games that count. No word at this point on anyone else testing positive. )
They’re second in the NBA in offensive rating and 22nd in defensive rating, which is about on par with who they’ve been the last few years. Tons of three-pointers and free throws, mostly driven by the efforts of James Harden. Westbrook is still averaging nearly a triple double (27.5 pts./8 rebs/7 assists) but his 25% three-point shooting makes him stick out on a team full of three-point threats.
Westbrook’s presence takes the ball handling pressure off Harden and gives the Rockets a pretty deadly one-two punch down the stretch. Small ball is a problem for teams with a slower center, like the Jazz, Thunder and Nuggets – all potential first round opponents. But the Clippers and Lakers both have the mobility to keep up with them and enough perimeter defenders to cause Harden and Westbrook problems. Even the Mavericks who sit in the 7th spot, when Porzingis has been healthy, proved to be a difficult matchup for Houston as he could patrol the middle and thwart drives while more than holding his own on offense.
The Rockets’ schedule starts out really tough with the Mavericks, Bucks, Blazers and Lakers. A loss to the Mavericks in their first game along with another loss or two to start could find the Rockets behind the Mavericks going into their final four games. The schedule softens from there (Kings, Spurs, Pacers, Sixers) but at that point they may need to just hope the Mavericks stumble down the stretch. Falling to 7th and facing the Clippers in the first round is their nightmare scenario so expect the Rockets to do everything they can to avoid that. With no home court advantage for anyone, that’s what the Rockets should focus on in these eight games because one LA team or another will likely await them in round two.
It would only be appropriate for a one of a kind team like the Rockets to figure out a way to win it all in a one of a kind season. They won’t have to worry about their role players having to shoot well on the road, so if they can get it going, they could be a really tough out with teams struggling to just keep up with their scoring outbursts.
They will struggle in their first four games as defense will rule the day in the early games but then get it going before the playoffs and do just enough to at least stay ahead of the Thunder. The Rockets will again be the most entertaining team come playoff time, and I’ll take the over in all of their games, but in the end, I think they fall short of a title and try to re-tool again going into a (hopefully) more normal season in 2021.