Rockets clinch best record, but are not playing well

Rockets clinch best record, but are not playing well
James Harden was sharp against lowly Phoenix. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Rockets continued to add achievements to their already historic season this past week by not only clinching the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference for the first time in franchise history, but also clinching home court advantage throughout the playoffs. The Rockets faced one of their easier weeks of competition, and after effortlessly handling the Bulls on Tuesday, Houston struggled against an abysmal Phoenix team Friday before being blown out Sunday versus the San Antonio Spurs. The Rockets are guaranteed the best record in the league, but their performance in the past two games is cause for concern as the playoffs loom ahead.

Game 75: Houston vs Chicago Bulls (W, 118-86)

James Harden rested Tuesday, as the Rockets took on a team so bad that the NBA commissioner warned them against what is perceived by most as tanking. The Bulls looked just as outmatched on the court as they did on paper, and by midway through the third quarter, the Rockets lead was an overwhelming 40 points. Eric Gordon led the team with 31 points and a career-high 8 three-pointers on the way to the Rockets’ tenth straight victory. Trevor Ariza followed with 21 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 steals.

Game 76: Houston vs Phoenix Suns (W, 104-103)

Friday night’s matchup against Phoenix should have been as easy of a victory as Tuesday’s considering that the Suns own the worst record in the NBA. I was actually regretting going to the game over watching the Astros’ second game of the season, and when the Suns’ lead reached 21 points I felt validated, albeit for the opposite reason I had anticipated. Chris Paul and Eric Gordon both sat, and the Rockets played sloppy and uninspired until halfway through the third when the rally began. Houston would trim the lead down to 11 heading into the fourth quarter, where Harden would do what Harden has done plenty of times before this season. Harden would spearhead a furious comeback culminated by a game-tying stepback 3-pointer with 12 seconds left. Phoenix would respond and bury a two-point mid range shot with 1.4 seconds left, prompting a Houston timeout. It seemed everyone in the building expected the inbounds pass to end up in the hands of Harden, but it was native Houstonian Gerald Green--who had made his first start as a Rocket that night--that freed himself up. The immediate catch and shoot was buried right in front of the Houston bench and Green was mobbed. Harden finished with 28 points, 8 rebounds, and 10 assists. P.J. Tucker buried 5 three-pointers on the way to an 18-point performance. The win was Houston’s 11th straight.

Game 77: Houston at San Antonio (L, 100-83)

Houston has handled San Antonio easily all season, so Sunday’s matchup seemed to provide as little intrigue as the other two games earlier in the week. Instead of cruising to a season sweep, however, Houston was dismantled and the Spurs held the Rockets to a season-low 83 points. The Rockets went 7-31 from three-point range as a team, and after Houston trimmed the lead down to 1 late in the first half, San Antonio regained its composure and pulled away to an easy victory. Harden finished with 25 points and 8 assists, while Gordon added 18 points.

Looking Ahead

The Rockets will need to shake off a disappointing week and regroup quickly, as this final full week of games features a full slate of playoff bound competition. Tuesday Houston will take on the Wizards at home, followed by a Thursday home game versus Portland and a Saturday contest against Oklahoma City. Houston will need to forego resting its starters this week if they’re to regain their rhythm heading into the postseason. It’s difficult to optimistically predict anything this upcoming week with the way the Rockets are currently performing, but if they return to form I expect wins against the Wizards and the Thunder at the very least.

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