NBA Handicapping: Rockets and Warriors Playoff Race
We are in for a real treat down the stretch and into the NBA Playoffs. The Houston Rockets are currently half a game ahead of the Golden State Warriors, and those two are 10.5 and 11 games ahead of third-place San Antonio. It's a two-horse race, which is pretty much what we expected - give or take one team, at least. Both teams are really, really good, and one is going to win the title. Houston is rolling right now, but can they stay ahead? Or is Golden State going to win the West yet again? Let's break down the race from a few different angles:
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Current form: The Rockets are absolutely on fire right now. They have won 12 straight games and 19 of 21. They have beaten some underwhelming teams in that stretch - Sacramento, Dallas, Brooklyn, Orlando, Phoenix. But the league is full of very underwhelming teams, so that is unavoidable. They are playing spectacular basketball. The Warriors just aren't playing at the same level at this point. They have won five of their last six but had lost three of four before that. They had won 25 of 29 before that, so it's hardly time to panic. But they have looked tired at times, and they don't look fully committed at this point - at least not all of the time. They'll be fine, but it remains to be seen if they can shift back into gear in time to fight for first - or if the Rockets can keep up this pace of play.
In the event of a tie: Right now the teams have the same number of wins, and Houston has one fewer loss. A tie is a really possibility at the end of the season. If that were to happen then Houston would get the home-court advantage because they have won two of the three head-to-head showdowns.
The core: We knew coming into the season that the Rockets had a clear and obvious big two as soon as they grabbed Chris Paul. But what we couldn't have known is that a big three - an unlikely one - would emerge. Center Clint Capela doesn't have the gaudy numbers of some other big men, but the chemistry he has with his two superstar teammates is truly incredible. The three have been in the starting lineup together for 31 games, and they are a truly ridiculous 30-1 in that time. That's probably not sustainable, but it is impressive and unexpected.
Meanwhile, Golden State's group of power hasn't found their stride in nearly the same way. Curry, Durant, Thompson and Green have been in the starting lineup together 36 times this year, and they have gone only 26-10 in that time. It's hardly time to panic, of course. They know what it takes to win, we know that they know how to win together, and they don't necessarily feel the urgency at this point in the season. Golden State's core is better, and certainly more experienced, but they have to prove it. Teams in their situation could be short of hunger, and that could be a problem - but it is far from certain.
Remaining schedule: The Warriors probably have the easiest schedule remaining of any team in the league. They don't have to play any of the current heavyweights - Houston, Toronto, Boston or Cleveland. They do, however, get to play Atlanta twice and Phoenix three times. And they get the Knicks, Lakers, and Kings as well. They will have absolutely no excuses from the schedule. And, to the benefit of what they seem focused on, they should be able to keep winning while keeping the key players fresh and rested.
Houston has a very manageable, but slightly tougher, schedule. They play Boston, and at Toronto, but they have plenty of soft spots as well. The difference in schedules is not going to be a defining factor in this race.
Basketball played: The biggest concern I have about the Warriors - and to be honest I don't have many concerns and fully expect them to win the title - is the mileage on their legs. They have gone all the way to the finals three years in a row. That's a whole lot of basketball played and a lot less time at the end of the year to regroup, rest, relax, and take time to be human before having to gear up for another season. The Rockets over that time have played six fewer series. I don't expect it to be a major issue once the playoffs roll around, but it could have a big impact on them down the stretch as they keep trying to get their rest.
The odds: The oddsmakers still don't see it as much of a race - or at least they don't care about which team finishes first during the regular season. BetOnline has Golden State at -240 to win the conference, with Houston as the distant second choice at +275. And Golden State is an almost incomprehensible -160 to win the NBA title, compared to +450 for the Rockets.
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