NEW ORLEANS -- For the Houston Rockets, the only season that counts begins at home Sunday night with their playoff opener against the Portland Trail Blazers. That is why after their 105-100 loss Wednesday night to the New Orleans Pelicans in a regular-season finale, which had no bearing on playoff seeding, the Rockets focused exclusively on the road ahead. As the fourth seed in the Western Conference, the Rockets (54-28) took full advantage of the quasi-scrimmage, giving center Dwight Howard a chance to shake off the rust from a strained left ankle that had sidelined him for three weeks. Houston coach Kevin McHale also was able to rest key players -- leading scorer James Harden, forward Chandler Parsons and guard Jeremy Lin -- before the Rockets enter the postseason grind.
After nearly six full months and 82 games for each of the NBA's 30 teams, the regular season now gives way to the postseason. With no clear favorite, a massively competitive Western Conference, and two big rivals atop the Eastern Conference, this year's playoffs figure to be worth the wait.
Without further ado, let's take a quick look at the first-round matchups, along with full schedules (all times Eastern and some quick analysis. (We'll publish in-depth previews for every series later this week.)
No. 1 San Antonio Spurs (62-20) vs. No. 8 Dallas Mavericks (49-33)
Game 1: Sunday, April 20, at San Antonio, 1:00PM on TNT
Game 2: Wednesday, April 23, at San Antonio, 8:00PM on NBA TV
Game 3: Saturday, April 26, at Dallas, 4:30PM on TNT
Game 4: Monday, April 28, at Dallas, 9:30PM on TNT
Game 5*: Wednesday, April 30, at San Antonio, TBD
Game 6*: Friday, May 2, at Dallas, TBD
Game 7*: Sunday, May 4, at San Antonio, TBD
The eternally effective Spurs bounced back from last June's heartbreaking NBA Finals loss to finish with the league's best record, due in large part to the strenghts of head coach Gregg Popovich and the mainstay trio of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili. The Mavericks return to the playoffs after a one-year absence and boast Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis as offensive leaders. San Antonio swept the season series 4-0 and looks like the favorite this year, as well.
No. 4 Houston Rockets (54-28) vs. No. 5 Portland Trail Blazers (54-28)
Game 1: Sunday, April 20, at Houston, 9:30PM on TNT
Game 2: Wednesday, April 23, at Houston, 9:30PM on TNT
Game 3: Friday, April 25, at Portland, 10:30PM on ESPN
Game 4: Sunday, April 27, at Portland, 9:30PM on TNT
Game 5*: Wednesday, April 30, at Houston, TBD
Game 6*: Friday, May 2, at Portland, TBD
Game 7*: Sunday, May 4, at Houston, TBD
With All-Stars Dwight Howard and James Harden, plus a strong supporting cast that includes the multi-talented Chandler Parsons, the Rockets have a not insubstantial chance at representing the West in the NBA Finals. The Blazers cooled down after a scintillating start to the season, but All-Stars LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard present a formidable challenge for any opponent. Expect a high-scoring series from two of the NBA's most efficient offenses.
With home court advantage already locked up, the Houston Rockets rested the majority of the players in the rotation, and lose their season-finale, 105-100 to New Orleans. Houston finishes the regular season, 54-28, which is the fifth best record in team history. Starters James Harden and Chandler Parsons, along with reserves Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik and Francisco Garcia were all held out of the game as the team prepares to open the postseason on Sunday night at 8:30 p.m. at Toyota Center against Portland. Rookie Troy Daniels, who has impressed since being recalled earlier this month, scored a career high 22 points.
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- The Houston Rockets, already locked into the fourth seed in the Western Conference playoffs, have decided to rest James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Chandler Parsons for Wednesday night's regular season finale against the New Orleans Pelicans.