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5 Things to Watch for During the Houston Rockets' Final Regular-Season Games

Jake LapinCorrespondent IApril 3, 2014

5 Things to Watch for During the Houston Rockets' Final Regular-Season Games

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    The Rockets need Dwight Howard back on the court as soon as possible.
    The Rockets need Dwight Howard back on the court as soon as possible.Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    With playoff time right around the corner, the Houston Rockets have some kinks to work out in their final regular-season games.

    Houston has taken a turn for the worse at a very inopportune time. The team was playing well and suddenly the wheels fell off the wagon, leaving the Rockets in a tailspin.

    Key players are getting hurt, such as Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley, and the rotations are all messed up. Some players seem to just be going through the motions as of late and bench players who usually don't get much playing time are now seeing heavy minutes.

    The playoff picture is anything but clear out West and the Rockets are in the thick of it all. Rockets fans will have to keep an eye on the league scoreboard down the stretch, and hopefully Houston can hang on to that fourth and final seed with home-court advantage.

    Here are five things to look out for in the Rockets' final stretch of games before the postseason.

     

    All stats are from ESPN.com unless otherwise noted and accurate as of 4/3/14.

5. Shooting Statistics

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    The Rockets really need to shoot the ball well in the postseason.
    The Rockets really need to shoot the ball well in the postseason.Layne Murdoch Jr./Getty Images

    "You live and die by the three." You've heard it many times. Unfortunately for the Rockets, it's true.

    Houston launches the most threes per game in the entire league, yet it only shoots the 17th-best percentage from long range. When the Rockets struggle from behind the arc, they struggle to win ballgames.

    Chandler Parsons leads the team shooting just 37.0 percent from deep. He was up over 40 percent earlier in the season, but is back way below thanks to 28.3 percent shooting in March. He will definitely have to fix that shooting touch come playoff time.

    James Harden, on the other hand, shot 43.1 percent from distance in the month of March. After struggling early on in the year, he is up to 36.5 percent from three, which isn't great, but is certainly an improvement.

    It would be nice if the Beard could continue to have the hot hand for the Rockets once the playoffs begin.

    The only other Rocket shooting the three-ball over 35 percent is Beverley, but he's out for a little while with a torn meniscus.

    His replacement, Jeremy Lin, has not been getting the job done from behind the arc. Lin's shooting just 34.2 percent on the year, including 30.8 percent in March. Houston would love for him to heat up down the stretch.

    All of the shooters need to be shooting well if the Rockets want to go deep into the playoffs. This list includes Jordan Hamilton, Francisco Garcia, Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas.

4. James Harden

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    Harden will lead the Rockets down the stretch.
    Harden will lead the Rockets down the stretch.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    There have been a lot of injuries on Houston's roster lately and the Beard has had to lead the Rockets through a tough stretch in the schedule.

    Harden has been dominant since the All-Star break, averaging 27.6 points, 6.7 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game. He's shooting over 43 percent from three-point range as well. He has single-handedly led the Rockets to big wins over powerhouses such as Miami, Indiana, Portland and others.

    As the playoffs are approaching, Houston will look to Harden to lead the team as far as possible. He will be the guy with the ball in his hands in crunch time and the Rockets need him at his best in the postseason if they want to advance.

    Harden has already proven that he can be an elite shooting guard. He's one of the best pure scorers in the game with great outside range and a knack for getting into the lane and drawing fouls.

    However, he will have to step up big-time on the defensive end in the playoffs.

3. Different Rotations

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    The Rockets will count on some players who don't see the floor too often in their last stretch of games.
    The Rockets will count on some players who don't see the floor too often in their last stretch of games.John Minchillo

    For the last couple weeks of the season, Houston will have to rely on some players from the end of the bench. With injuries to Howard and Beverley, and even some missed time from Jones, role players who had lost their niche in the rotation are back on the court.

    Garcia, Hamilton and Omri Casspi are all getting minutes again. Isaiah Canaan is now the backup point guard while Beverley sits with that hurt knee, and he has been playing quite a bit.

    This situation is not ideal for Kevin McHale and his coaching staff, which is now down a man thanks to the University of Houston. A coach wants to figure out his best way to arrange the minutes and having so many important players miss time will disrupt that process.

    On the bright side, McHale will get a good look at some of his bench players and he can decide if he wants to utilize any of them in the postseason.

    The entire roster is getting a chance to show off what it can do and try to earn some playing time right before the playoffs begin.

2. Playoff Positioning

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    The Rockets are battling with the Trail Blazers for playoff positioning.
    The Rockets are battling with the Trail Blazers for playoff positioning.David J. Phillip

    This isn't just pertinent to the Rockets, but Houston will have to watch the scoreboard from around the league as the playoff push intensifies.

    The Rockets are trying to come away with a top-four seed in order to have home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. They are currently the No. 4 seed, but there is plenty of time left for the standings to shift around.

    It's unlikely that Houston can crack the top three, unless the L.A. Clippers collapse down the home stretch.

    The Rockets have a slim lead on Portland for the fourth seed in the West. Thankfully, Houston owns the tiebreaker over the Blazers as well as the sneaky Golden State Warriors.

    The Rockets can control their own destiny thanks to their slim lead, but it would be nice if the Blazers and Warriors could drop a few games and give the Rockets some breathing room.

    In the West, nobody knows who they will match up with yet because the standings are so close. I personally think the Rockets would be best-suited with a series against Portland, who they are 3-1 against this season.

    If they can win that matchup, they would most likely face the first-seeded San Antonio Spurs, who they are already 3-0 against this year.

    That path seems like the best way for Houston to reach the Western Conference Finals, because they would avoid tough matchups against the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Clippers, who they just can't seem to beat.

1. The Health Situations

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    Houston needs everyone to get healthy in order to gear up for a big playoff run.
    Houston needs everyone to get healthy in order to gear up for a big playoff run.Bob Leverone

    The most important thing as the season winds down is health. The Rockets need their key guys to nurse themselves back to health and get back on the court as soon as possible.

    All of the things to watch for on this list are affected by who's playing and who's not due to injury.

    Dwight had to take care of a cyst in his ankle, and he will hopefully suit up soon. He made the road trip to Brooklyn and Toronto listed as day-to-day, but didn't end up playing.

    Beverley has a torn meniscus and many thought he would be out for the season. Fortunately for the Rockets, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reports that it was only a minor tear and Bev will be able to return for the postseason.

    Even Terrence Jones missed a decent amount of time with flu-like symptoms and the Rockets would like for him to get back on track once the playoffs roll around.

    If the Rockets want to gear up for a deep playoff run, they need everyone to get healthy as soon as possible. You can't afford to have big players shaking off rust during the most important time of the year, especially in the crowded Western Conference playoff picture.

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