The Toronto Raptors and Houston Rockets couldn't be any different right now. The Raptors (48-22), who trailed the Eastern Conference-leading Cleveland Cavaliers by 2.5 games as of Thursday, are simply going through the motions in the stretch run of the regular season. Meanwhile in Texas, the Rockets (35-37) are clinging for their postseason lives in the Western Conference and sat a half game behind the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz for the eighth and final playoff spot at the time of writing.
Despite suffering a 91-79 setback to the Boston Celtics on Wednesday, the Raps clinched a playoff berth thanks to a loss by the Chicago Bulls. A third consecutive Atlantic Division crown is a formality at this point, but it's a title that's fairly meaningless for a franchise that's coming off back-to-back first-round exits.
All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry did not play in that game due to a sore elbow, and the absence of the floor general was painfully obvious. Toronto shot 35 percent from the field, 55 percent from the line and 27 from beyond the arc. Power forward Patrick Patterson missed his second straight game with an ankle injury.
How much of a mess are the Rockets? How much time do you have? In the wake of an appearance in the Western Conference Finals, head coach Kevin McHale was relieved of his duties after an ugly start to the season, easily hatable starting centre Dwight Howard recently came under fire for using stickum, and the team's top two players (Howard and James Harden) reportedly tried to get each other traded at the trade deadline.
Mix in the fact that Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton were briefly dealt to the Detroit Pistons but are now back in the fold, and the Rockets have the makeup of one of the most dysfunctional locker rooms in the Association. Call them the West's version of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Losers of three in a row heading into the tilt, James Harden and company are faltering at the wrong time. Things won't get any easier, as the squad will face Indiana, Cleveland, Chicago, Oklahoma City and Dallas before the schedule softens up. You would normally expect a team with so much at stake to bring their A game versus an opponent whose collective mind is clearly on the playoffs, but you never really know what you're going to see from this bunch.
Let's get to it. Here are three things to watch out for tonight.
The Rest Effect
Raps head coach Dwane Casey has made it clear his team is not concerned with challenging the wine and gold or the No. 1 seed. "Health is more important than chasing first place," Casey told reporters on Wednesday. "You want to continue to do it, I'm not poo-pooing it at all. We are all fighting for it, but if it comes between a guy with a sore ankle, sore calf, sore knee or whatever and fighting of that spot, my team's health is more important than putting them out there and maybe further damaging them."
It's a fair point, and truthfully, a late March game against Houston is not going to be memorable in what's been deemed a make-or-break year for the Raptors to get over the hump. The bench boss may opt to sit his big guns yet again, which could equate to some more unpleasant viewing for fans of Canada's lone NBA team.
During the Rockets' aforementioned losing skid, they've averaged just 97 points and shot 42 percent from the field. In light of Wednesday's 89-87 loss to the Utah Jazz, Houston fell to 2-16 on the year when failing to eclipse the 100 point mark and 5-20 when shooting below 43 percent. This is the definition of a Jekyll and Hyde club, and there's no doubting they can go toe-to-toe with the best of them when they're on their game. It's going to be interesting to see which side shows up tonight.
Containing the Beard
Attitude questions and comically poor defense aside, there simply aren't many players in today's NBA who can single-handedly take over a game like Rockets shooting guard James Harden. Harden had a field day in the last meeting between these teams on March 6, finishing with 40 points and 14 assists in a 113-107 victory at the Air Canada Centre.
It's a tough matchup for anyone, but DeMar DeRozan's recent shooting woes (38 percent from the floor his last four) don't help. DeRozan was 6-of-16 versus the Celtics, the cherry on top of what was an underwhelming performance across the board. Harden can go off at any time, and his team could sorely use another strong effort from the Arizona State product.
Where to Watch: Sportsnet, 8 p.m. ET.