Playoff positioning in play for Rockets, Thunder
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Until recently, it didn't look like the Houston Rockets had much of a realistic hope of finishing ahead of the Denver Nuggets for the second spot in the Western Conference.
A week ago it also looked unlikely that the Oklahoma City Thunder would finish anywhere but the No. 8 spot, leading to a first-round matchup with the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.
But heading into the final two days of the regular season, both the Rockets and Thunder have a chance to bolster their playoff standing.
Tuesday night in Oklahoma City, the teams will square off with plenty remaining on the line.
The Rockets have won six consecutive games and 20 of their last 23 to move into position to potentially pass Denver.
They need some help, though, to move up.
Tuesday is Houston's regular-season finale while Denver, which enters the day a half-game ahead of the Rockets, has two remaining.
Fourth place also remains a possibility for Houston with a loss. Portland is currently a game-and-a-half behind the Rockets and holds the tiebreaker agaijnst Houston.
The Thunder also have three possibilities going into their final two games. Oklahoma City currently sits sixth, a half-game ahead of the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers, who are tied for seventh.
Both of those teams have just one game remaining.
The Thunder have won two of the first three meetings with the Rockets this year, though none of those games has come since Houston caught fire after the All-Star break and Oklahoma City slipped.
In their last meeting, Feb. 9 in Houston, Paul George scored 45 points to overcome James Harden's 42-point performance in a 117-112 Thunder win.
While Houston is relatively healthy player-wise going into their finale, the Rockets are hoping to get coach Mike D'Antoni back after an absence.
D'Antoni hasn't been around the team for four consecutive days, including Monday, as he battles the stomach flu. But the team is hopeful D'Antoni will be able to return to the bench Tuesday.
With D'Antoni out, Jeff Bzdelik has coached the Rockets in the last two games.
In Sunday's win over the Suns, Houston hit an NBA-record 27 3-pointers. The Rockets had tied the record twice -- including last week at Sacramento -- before finally breaking through to beat the single-game mark.
In the win over Phoenix, Houston had a season-high 34 assists, with its offense coming more in the flow of the offense instead of Harden taking over all the time.
"It's big for us," Harden said of the game in Oklahoma City. "But we've been playing well so it'll be great to end the season the right way."
Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan has shown flexibility in his rotations recently, using Raymond Felton, Patrick Patterson and Markieff Morris especially in expanded roles and different situations.
"You, in the playoffs, gets caught doing different things," Donovan said. "And I think that's why you always want to keep your roster engaged during the course of the year because I think everybody's got to be in a position to step up -- because if you're in a seven-game series, adjustments, matchups, how you're looking to play, you want to be able to rely on guys in different situations."
--Field Level Media
Updated April 8, 2019