HOUSTON ROCKETS (40-24), tied for fifth in Western Conference
Where are they now: No fans will be allowed at games in the NBA bubble, but don’t be surprised if opposing scouts attempt to sneak a peek at the Rockets, the team most often mentioned as the one to avoid in the first round of the Western playoffs.
Houston could finish anywhere from second to seventh, but most likely will land third, fourth, fifth or sixth, meaning a playoff matchup against one of the three teams currently tied with or immediately ahead of them as everyone embarks upon their final eight games.
Those eight will be no picnic for the Rockets, who draw the top team in the West (Lakers) and top two in the East (Bucks, Raptors), with no head-to-heads against any of the three (Nuggets, Jazz, Thunder) they are dueling for spots 3-6.
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Houston Rockets First Half Highlights
As most teams begin a second season, the Rockets have been there, done that. Their “break” actually occurred on Jan. 30 — the day after a loss at Portland dropped them to 29-18, and day before Mike D’Antoni switched over to the small-ball approach that his club will take into the NBA bubble.
The new look was generally successful — Houston went 11-6 after the move — but more than anything else, it was streaky: Four wins, two losses, six wins, four losses, one win (in the final pre-postponement game against Minnesota).
The question is: Did opponents figure out the Rockets after the new look began 10-2? Or was that win over Minnesota on March 10 just the start of another (winning) streak?
Houston Rockets NBA Bubble Roster Rundown
James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Or Westbrook and Harden. No matter how you list them, the combination played at a historic level in the first 64 games. Harden leads the league in scoring at 34.4 points per game and is tied with Trae Young (whose Hawks are done for the season) atop fourth-quarter scorers at 8.7 points per game.
But truth be told, Westbrook probably had the better “first half.” That was surely the case down the stretch of tight games (ones within three points inside of 5:00 to play), where Westbrook shot 15-for-29 (51.7 percent) while Harden struggled at a 10-for-33 clip (30.3 percent).
Each had a streak of 34 straight games with at least 20 points (Westbrook’s is ongoing), and together they are threatening to become the first set of teammates in NBA history to average at least 25 points and seven assists apiece.
In terms of the adjustment to the small-ball approach … Advantage: Westbrook. He averaged 31.0 points on 53-percent shooting after the move, whereas Harden was at 28.8 points on 40-percent shooting over his final 26 games.
Despite the fact the Rockets were outrebounded in 16 of their last 17 games, general manager Daryl Morey remains all-in on the small-ball approach.
“The more skill you get on the floor, the better your offense is,” he explained to reporters recently. “Defensively, you’ve got to work to create a good defense within whatever players you’ve got out there.”
Houston Rockets NBA Bubble Playoff Outlook
No team got more attention upon entering the NBA bubble than the Rockets, who initially were without both Harden and Westbrook. Harden made his grand entrance a couple of days late because of personal reasons, leaving the club to worry only about the status of Westbrook, who tested positive for the coronavirus before heading to Florida.
The Rockets expect Westbrook to join the team eventually, and with a playoff spot already assured, there’s really no hurry. Even if they drop below Dallas and into a first-round playoff matchup with the second-seeded the Clippers, the Rockets can be comforted by two earlier wins in the head-to-head this season, including one in Los Angeles.
Shortly upon landing in Central Florida, Harden gave an early assessment of the Rockets’ incentive-less mindset.
“If you’re fourth seed, fifth seed, sixth seed, it doesn’t really matter,” he assured reporters. “For us, it’s about being in shape and making sure that our offense and our defense is crispy and we’re all on the same page. We’ll play anybody.”
Let’s be honest: Who isn’t rooting for Harden/Westbrook vs. Kawhi Leonard/Paul George in Round 1?
Houston Rockets NBA Bubble Bet Bets: Anyone (odds to be determined) over Rockets in first round of playoffs. It’s said you can’t win in the postseason without playing defense. After this series, chances are they’ll be saying the same thing about getting rebounds. Houston is heavily committed to small ball and it has been effective in spurts. In the postseason, where possessions are highly valued, this approach puts the Rockets behind the 8-ball.