To preview the huge showdown at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff race between the Mavericks and the Rockets on Wednesday, we've brought in Brian McDonald of SBNation Houston for a synergy-filled Q&A.
Head over to SBN Houston for my answers to his questions about the Mavericks.
1) After losing four straight games, the Rockets are now in a tie for 8th place with the Phoenix Suns. What's the mood like around the team right now?
The team itself seems as positive as it can be given the situation their losing streak has put them in. Guys like Luis Scola and Kyle Lowry never get too down, they're very confident, and I don't think their mood will be an issue. However, the fans for the most part have given up on this team. To tell the truth, even when the team came home off 4 straight road wins to face Utah and Phoenix, Toyota Center was only at about 60% capacity. Houston is a football town with a lot of transplants from other cities that are rooting for their own team, so it's hard to get fans on the bandwagon; especially coming off back-to-back non-playoff seasons.
2) Talk a little about Houston's schedule going forward. Is tonight's game a must-win for them?
Assuming that the Miami Heat will be resting their starters for their game against the Rockets on April 22nd (and I do because the Heat are basically locked-in as the 2 seed in the East), then the Rockets have 4 very winnable games remaining on their schedule. If they take care of business in their games against Golden State, Miami's B-team, and their two games vs. New Orleans; 4-1 down the stretch and 36 wins overall should get them into the playoffs. So I don't think the Dallas game is a do or die scenario, but it's still important because if the Rockets losing streak reaches 5 games, it could kill them mentally.
Looking at the schedules of the 3 teams fighting for the 8th seed, my guess is it'll be either the Rockets or the Jazz who take the final spot. The Suns closing schedule is just brutal with games against the Thunder, Clippers, Nuggets, @ Utah, and the Spurs; I think they lose 3 of the 5, including the Jazz game, and are knocked out. Utah's closing stretch is pretty favorable with two games vs. Portland, and home games against the Suns and the Magic likely without Dwight Howard. The Jazz are 1 back of the Rockets in the loss column but do own the tie-breaker, so in my 4-1 scenario for the Rockets, they would need the Jazz to go 3-1 or worse to make the playoffs. If the Jazz win out, the Rockets will have to do the same to take the 8th seed.
3) What adjustments do you see the Rockets making after losing their last two games to Dallas?
I don't know if much of an adjustment will be made. The cast is the same, they know what the Mavericks run, the Rockets just have to play better. They know their bigs have to get out on Dirk when he drifts out to the 3-point line. They know they can't rotate off of Jason Terry and give him open looks; he's been the #1 Rocket killer in his time with the Mavericks.
They know what to expect from the Mavericks, but too often they get lazy on defense, don't block out on rebounds, and the Mavericks win the game in the 4th quarter. In their two losses to Dallas this season, they shot 38% and then 41%; they just have to hit their shots. During their 4 game losing streak, the Rockets shot 26-94 (27.6%) from behind the arc. Dallas is the better team, but they're by no means a super team this season. If the Rockets focus on defense, focus on boxing out, and can hit at least 45% of their shots; they can beat Dallas.
4) Goran Dragic really increased his play during Kyle Lowry's absence. He's a free agent this off-season; do you think Houston will be able to keep him?
Dragic has been great and has even shown the ability to play with Lowry on the court since his return. The Rockets will have the cap space to re-sign Dragic, however, you can't pay two guys who play the same position that kind of money. While they play well together in short stints, they can't start and play 35+ minutes together, so paying both wouldn't be a great use of their assets. Most likely what will happen is they'll let Dragic walk; they won't keep both. What could happen, and I'd say the chances are small, they could trade Lowry along with their multiple 1st round picks for the star they've been chasing since the demise of T-Mac and Yao, and then re-sign Dragic to be their starter at point guard. General Manager Daryl Morey is definitely not afraid to pull the trigger on a trade, but I'd still make letting Dragic walk the favorite on the board.
5) The Rockets seem stuck on what I like to call "the mediocrity treadmill": not good enough to contend, but not bad enough to get a high pick. What do you think the plan in the off-season will be and has this season made you more optimistic about the future?
The tank the season vs. keep building through mid-round draft picks and trades has been a hot discussion amongst Rockets fans over the last couple seasons. The Rockets haven't been bad (had winning records despite missing the playoffs the last two seasons), but is being the best darn lottery team and picking 14th every year really the way to build a team? I, along with most fans I talk to, would like to see them tank it for a couple seasons, acquire some top draft picks and try to get their 1 or 2 stars to build around that way. However, it's long been the direction of owner Leslie Alexander that tanking isn't acceptable if there's another option.
GM Daryl Morey has been tasked with building this team through their mid-round picks and through trade, and that's what they'll do this off-season. I think it's obvious the best, and most of the time quickest way to build a championship team is through top picks. Look at the Spurs with Duncan, the Thunder with Durant, the Bulls with Derrick Rose, the Magic with Dwight Howard, and heck even the Rockets with Yao; but the Rockets seem unwilling to try that approach. Sure, occasionally teams find gems like Manu Ginobili or Danny Granger outside the top 10, but that's more luck than anything else.
To the frustration of their fans, the Rockets will in all likely hood continue to try to find sleeper picks late in the lottery, and try to acquire the star they need through trade or free-agency. If they do miss the playoffs, there is a chance they could own 3 first round picks. If that happens, maybe Morey can pull off a trade into the top 5 of the draft. Otherwise, it'll be more of the same.