There are four games left in the regular season to decide who goes to the playoffs, and who is left watching the postseason at home.
For some teams, the final week will make or break their chances, especially in the Western Conference, where three teams are vying for the final two playoff spots. Of those three, the Houston Rockets may play the “odd man out.”
Despite surging since the trade deadline, winning 13 out of the last 19 games, Houston (41-37) is currently ninth place in the Western Conference, looking up at the seventh-place New Orleans Hornets (44-33) and the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies (44-34).
Losing to a dismal Sacramento Kings team earlier this week didn’t help Houston’s chances and the team really felt the loss.
“It was definitely an opportunity wasted,” Rockets center Chuck Hayes told the Houston Chronicle. “If we were going to go down, we didn’t want to go down like that.”
To make the playoffs, the Rockets would pretty much need to win out, something that won’t be easy looking at their remaining schedule. Houston has two road games left, including one tonight against the Hornets, and another to close the season at the Minnesota Timberwolves.
New Orleans leads the season series 2-1, but has struggled since losing David West to injury. The Rockets have handled Minnesota this season, winning two of their three matchups by an average of 15 points.
The Hornets may be tough since they, too, are fighting for a spot, but considering the Timberwolves have all but mailed it in this season, Houston may get an easy ‘W’ to close out the season.
The two remaining home games offer a dangerous pair of opponents: The Dallas Mavericks and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Dallas, currently in third overall in the west, has historically had the Rockets’ number, and is leading the season series 3-0. One factor in Houston’s favor is that the Mavs have virtually nothing to play for, considering they likely will neither move up nor down the standings before the playoffs start. Starters may see extended rest time, too. Still, Dallas will not be an easy opponent, whether starters play limited time or not.
The Clippers are an interesting opponent. Though Houston leads the season series 2-1, L.A. is as inconsistent as they come in the NBA. If the Clippers struggle early, they fall apart like a wet sheet of paper. But when Blake Griffin gets it going, with a little bit of Mo Williams, Eric Gordon, and DeAndre Jordan mixed in, L.A. can actually give good teams a run for their money.
A postseason spot isn’t the only thing at stake for the Rockets before the end of the season. The futures of several important pieces are also up in the air.
Head coach Rick Adelman’s contract is set to expire after the season, as are those of Yao Ming and Hayes.
Hayes will likely be brought back on with the team, however, the futures of Yao and Adelman with the Rockets are less likely.
“I have to do whatever I can to try to see if we can get in the playoff picture. It’s tough,” Adelman told the Houston Chronicle. “I look at the team today. In 3?1/2 years since I came here, we have only two guys left, Luis (Scola) and Chuck (Hayes.) That’s not a lot of stability. I came to coach Yao (Ming) and Tracy (McGrady) and ended up with Luis and Chuck.
“It is kind of amazing those are the only two guys left. I told them, ‘This is the group we have. What are you going to make of it?’ That is the same approach I have to take.”
With Yao, the Rockets have to ask themselves if they are willing to expand on their investment by taking a chance on a player who has played five games since April 2009. While there is upside of a possible Yao return, and he wants to come back to Houston, the risk may run a little high.
If Yao can ever return to form, any team would be better off with than without him, but the chances of him coming back as an effective presence are dwindling by the moment.
At the moment, management at least wants him back in town.
“I hope Yao Ming comes back to play again,” Rockets GM Daryl Morey said, “and I hope that it’s here.”
While there are many questions without answers in Houston, some clarity will definitely come in the Rockets’ final push for the playoffs this week.