For the first time in franchise history, the Houston Rockets have clinched the number one seed and the best record in the NBA. They are guaranteed homecourt advantage in any series they play this postseason.
So with five games remaining in the regular season, there is nothing left for the Rockets to play for (and frankly, they’re starting to play like it).
While the top two seeds are locked in with the Warriors at number two, high drama remains in the Western Conference as eight teams are trying to squeeze into six playoff spots. This gives Houston fans the unique ability to sit back stress-free and watch how the matchups align.
So let’s talk about possible pairings, but first — a couple of caveats.
While I’m talking about Houston’s path all the way to the NBA Finals, I’m not looking past any team. The Rockets could go cold from three and find themselves in trouble against any one of these squads. Also, saying one matchup is better than another for Houston is not a “fear” of the latter. The Rockets are 26-6 this year against the other nine West playoff possibilities, and five of those losses came with James Harden or Chris Paul out. They’re in a very good position.
Having said that, here are a few bracket possibilities to watch out for:
THE IDEAL BRACKET
2. Golden State
5. New Orleans/San Antonio
6. San Antonio/New Orleans
7. Oklahoma City
We’re talking about the perfect shuffle of the cards here. The Rockets were a combined 7-0 against Denver and Minnesota. The Nuggets are playoff virgins and the Timberwolves, while talented, can’t hang with the math of Houston’s three-point attack. Denver has mostly choked away their postseason opportunity, even coughing up a key game to a team on a 19-game losing streak, but a slim chance still remains for them to slide in. Having Minnesota in the second round is too good to be true. New Orleans is tough but beatable. The Spurs are well-coached but they don’t scare me if Rockets are healthy.
But I’m not as focused on who the Rockets face as I am the positioning against Golden State. The Warriors were a combined 2-4 against the Blazers and Thunder. Portland looks pretty secure for the third spot and that’s an ideal second-round matchup to give the Warriors trouble, but if the Thunder somehow end up at seven — a complete crapshoot at this point — it couldn’t get much better. I don’t think OKC has a prayer of beating Golden State when healthy, but the Warriors are banged up in that first-round series and the talent of the Thunder is a wild card. Having OKC in Houston’s bracket is just a waste of an opportunity to give Golden State trouble.
NBA Finals: Cavs.
MVP TOUR BRACKET
2. Golden State
3. San Antonio
5. Oklahoma City
8. New Orleans
James Harden is the NBA MVP for 2017-18. That much is certain.
But while MVP votes are in before the playoffs start (as Harden and the Rockets dismissing Westbrook and the Thunder in the first round last year showed), Harden could put an exclamation point on his season by facing the top candidates. Anthony Davis in the first round would be a nice start, followed by Damian Lillard and his sensitivity to layups in the second round. Take your pick of MVP candidates on Golden State’s roster for the Western Conference Finals.
NBA Finals: LeBron James.
PAYBACK TIME BRACKET
2. Golden State
3. Oklahoma City
6. New Orleans
8. San Antonio
Are you out for blood? Looking for a little revenge? Then this is the bracket for you.
If the Spurs just eek into the playoffs, that gives the Rockets the opportunity to exorcise the demons of last season by putting a stake in the heart of San Antonio early. Portland or Utah, both teams that eliminated the Rockets the last time they faced each other in the playoffs (2014 and 2008 respectively), would await in the second round. And Golden State, who knocked the Rockets out in 2015 and 2016, are positioned for the WCF.
NBA Finals: Toronto, who beat the Rockets both times this season.