Before the NBA abruptly suspended the regular season due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Houston Rockets were in the throes of a grand experiment, intriguingly embracing a small-ball lineup while eyeballing another potentially extended postseason run.
Four-plus months later, the Rockets (40-24) will pick up where they left off, facing the Dallas Mavericks (40-27) on Friday in a seeding game at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando.
The Rockets enter the restart in sixth place in the Western Conference standings. With the remainder of the regular season and the playoffs set to be contested in Central Florida, the concept of home-court advantage has been devalued, rendering seeding an exercise in securing favorable first-round matchups. For teams that fancy themselves as title contenders, that work is beginning.
"These three preseason games and our practices, we've used those as opportunities to work on our offense and defense and make sure we're in shape to give ourselves the best chance," said Rockets guard James Harden, who leads the NBA in scoring at 34.4 points per game. "It's going to be a journey, and everybody is going to compete for a certain goal."
The Rockets will be hamstrung from the onset after losing reserve guard Eric Gordon to a left ankle sprain that will sideline him for a minimum of two weeks. Houston has ample depth to offset the loss, with Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni identifying Ben McLemore, Jeff Green and Austin Rivers as leading candidates to fill the void. Still, Gordon is a key cog who will be missed.
That injury development has done little to stall Houston's momentum or enthusiasm. It was difficult to grasp precisely who the Rockets were once they went small, but now they will have an opportunity to cement their identity and set a tone of expectations with the playoffs looming.
"I think guys are looking forward to it, although I think they enjoyed the scrimmages also," D'Antoni said. "But they're looking forward to getting it on and seeing what happens as it obviously relates to the playoffs. That's what we're here for, and we'll use those eight games to try to round off in better shape and get some concepts down."
The Mavericks are in a different space, having largely overachieved prior to the league shutting down. Dallas split a pair of earlier meetings with the Rockets and has proven a challenging matchup courtesy of an offense that ranks first in efficiency at 115.8 points per 100 possessions (just ahead of the second-ranked Rockets) with MVP candidate Luka Doncic at the controls.
With the postseason all but assured, the seventh-place Mavericks are angling for a first-round matchup that provides the greatest opportunity to advance and gives their young core valuable playoff experience. Dallas isn't yet a title threat, but what the Mavericks accomplish during these seeding games and later in the playoffs could set the tone for their franchise resurgence.
"We're a talented team," Mavericks center Kristaps Porzingis told mavs.com, "... and now it's time for the real deal -- for the regular-season games and then the playoffs. So our excitement level is going to go a few levels up now. I think we're ready to go."
--Field Level Media