Not-so-bold prediction: The Houston Rockets won't make the playoffs.
This qualifies as not-so-bold for rather obvious reasons. Taking a center who averages 22.0 points, 10.8 boards and 2.0 blocks per game off a team generally doesn't help his team's chances.
In the Western Conference, where the seventh-ranked Rockets are just two games from the top spot and three from the ninth, the likelihood is that they will be heading downward in the long term. The two teams behind them -- the Warriors and Nuggets -- simply have too much talent, and the Rockets may have too much of a loss to make up.
It's too bad, really. These Rockets had been doing an excellent job being the exact opposite of what they were expected to be under Rick Adelman (instead of the high-octane offense, the Rockets have won games with their second-ranked 'D'), and with a winning streak that has now been extended to fourteen consecutive games, they are certainly the league's hottest team. Speculation has abounded that the Rockets may even be a better defensive team without Yao in the lineup (his astounding inability to move laterally can be a real killer), and Dikembe Mutombo can provide a very adequate substitute on the defensive end for stretches, but one has to wonder how much use the listed-as-a-41-year-old has left in him as well as whether this team will simply be losing too much on the boards and the offensive side without Yao.
The guess here is that the answer to that final set of questions is yes, and that the Rockets will finish ninth in the West with a very respectable record, particularly for a team that will have played the back end of its season sans one of its two most valuable players.
But -- there is a but here -- if there is to be any chance for them to make a legitimate push to hang in (and prove me wrong in the process), this upcoming week is most certainly it.
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Sometimes, a bit of scheduling and momentum can change everything.
It would appear that there are three teams currently in the discussion for the Western Conference's final two playoff berths; Houston, Golden State and Denver.
Barring further injury issues, the guess here is that Golden State is the surest of the three to nab one of those two spots. The Warriors crazed style allows them to cause problems for virtually every team in the league, and as the postseason draws nearer, the ever-rabid fan base in Oakland will only grow more potent, and the Warriors will become tougher to beat at Oracle Arena. This organization had a wonderful taste of success last spring and as of late has appeared hungrier than ever to replicate that. Further, for all the team's wildness on the floor, the orchestrator on the bench -- Don Nelson -- gets it. Nellie will roll the ball out and let his men play, but he also plays the mental game to a tee and will make sure the Dubs keep their composure for at least a longer time than most other coaches around the league could. If Stephen Jackson continues to take on more of a leadership role than ever before, this team should ultimately be a lock to be playing spring ball.
This leaves Houston and Denver. As was beginning to become evident prior to the news this week, a healthy Rockets team is likely better than either Golden State or Denver. As the team is no longer healthy, the Rockets' issue is fairly evident.
For the Nuggets' part, like Golden State, they too play at a frenetic pace (first in the league), have plenty of fire-power and play excellent ball at home. But for all the Warriors' wildness, it's worth remembering that this team has several players with track records of causing distractions (Allen Iverson, Melo Anthony, Kenyon Martin, J.R. Smith), two of whom are certifiable ball-hogs who are going to demand the ball when the games that matter are on the line. Unlike Nellie, George Karl has long been known as a coach who helps trigger meltdowns rather than diffuse them. Surprising as it might be to say given the way the Warriors can act sometimes, if there is a team most likely to mentally take themselves out of the picture here, it is the Nugs. A few bounces the wrong way and a few straight losses could throw this team's chemistry and infrastructure out of whack quicker than you could sucker punch Mardy Collins and then scramble away.
This is where the scheduling comes in.
In the next week and change, the Rockets will see Denver and Indiana at home, followed by a trip to Dallas and then home games against New Orleans and New Jersey. Assuredly, that isn't the easiest of slates, but if the Rockets are going to at least continue to be very competitive in Yao's absence if not a contender, there should be at least two definite victories there (Indiana and New Jersey), one toss-up (Denver), and two games that probably won't go so well in there, although the Mavs in particular can be fickle.
But here's the rub: It might only take a 3-2 week to make a huge difference in the right direction for the Rockets. Because the Nugs could be headed for big trouble. After the trip to Houston on Sunday, the Nuggets will host Phoenix on Wednesday and San Antonio on Friday before going to Utah on Saturday and to San Antonio for a rematch on Monday. The Rockets' week looks like a cake walk by comparison.
The Nuggets battled the Rockets without Tracy McGrady earlier in the year and barely pulled out a one-point win in overtime at home. If the Rockets can keep the tempo slow and stifle the Nuggets' scorers with their team defense, they will have a very legitimate chance to win this game. Beyond that, the Nugs certainly haven't been that dominant against any of the other teams on the docket here. They were wiped out by Phoenix earlier in the year and split two games apiece with the Spurs and Jazz. The Spurs are starting to turn it up for the stretch run, and the Jazz are an absurd 25-3 at home (who knew the Utah faithful could be such a force?). There is no reason why this couldn't legitimately be a 1-4 or an 0-5 run for the Nuggets.
That could give the Rockets at least another two games on the Nuggets, thus extending their lead to five games with less than 20 to play. That is the sort of thing that could give this Houston team a huge boost in confidence and adrenaline and have the opposite effect on a psychologically shaky Nugs team.
What all this means is that Sunday evening's Nuggets-Rockets contest on ESPN might have a tad more significance than do most first-weekend-of-March games.
It isn't probable that this will be the case, but Sunday night's game could be one more step in a potential miracle run for these suddenly pitied Houston Rockets.