Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard's Surging Lakers Threatening Jeremy Lin and James Harden's Rockets' Playoff Dreams?

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First Posted: Mar 10, 2013 09:41 AM EDT

About a month ago, the L.A. Lakers were dead to rights.

The Lakers were reeling and looking out of sorts, with Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard taking shots at each other in the media while their aging, injury-prone team couldn't muster up any defense and was looking worn and tattered with a 24-27 record on Feb. 8 and out of the playoff picture.

Meanwhile, the young and overachieving Houston Rockets were setting the league on fire with their fast and furious offense, running opponents ragged while James Harden and Jeremy Lin found cohesion and key Rockets players like Chandler Parsons and Carlos Delfino led the way for the Rockets as they quietly crept up in the standings to stand at 28-24 on Feb. 8 as they chased the eight and final spot in the Western playoff race.

Fast forward a month later, and it's a different picture.

The Rockets, with a 34-30 record after a Saturday loss to Phoenix, have lost four of their last seven games. The Lakers, in the meantime, have won seven of their last nine games, climbing to a 32-31 record--now tied for eighth seed in the West with Utah--as Bryant has shifted into another gear and Howard is grabbing rebounds at an alarming pace, 13.5 of them in his last 10 games.

With Utah having lost four in a row, the Lakers have a chance to finally be in the playoff picture with a Sunday win against Chicago. But with the Lakers surging, this could mean bad things for the Rockets.

As it stands, the Rockets are only a game behind Golden State for the sixth seed-which is where Houston wants to be. The reason? Memphis, the No.3 seed, would play the sixth seed in the West in the first round of the playoffs.

As crazy as it sounds, Houston's superior offense matches up better with Memphis's punishing defense. In the two games they've played this season, both teams have split wins so far, with the Grizzlies having beaten Houston in a close 93-85 game in November before a more gelled Rockets squad handed Memphis a 121-96 beatdown in December. Houston's young legs were too fast for Memphis's defense, who couldn't get set fast enough that game. Over a seven-game series, the Rockets have stamina and youth on their side, which gives them an edge against Memphis, who lost one of its star players, Rudy Gay, in a trade.

Outside of that, with the seventh or eighth seed, the Rockets would have to play either the Thunder, who beat them soundly in two out of three games this season, or San Antonio, which they have lost to three straight times this season. Both teams have offenses that rack up as many points as Houston's No.2-ranked offense of 106.8 points per game (OKC being No.1 and San Antonio No. 4).

As young and fast and exciting as they are to watch, neither team poses a favorable match-up for Harden and Lin's Rockets, who would have to deal with either Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in OKC or Tony Parker and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan in the Spurs.

The Lakers haven't had much better success against the Spurs or Thunder, either, dropping two narrow games to the Spurs and losing three of four games to OKC. However, there's a lot to be said about a team that still has two of the best at their positions in the game in Bryant and Howard and guided by a savvy veteran like Steve Nash. Each of them have gone deep in the playoffs with their own respective teams before coming together in L.A.

Assuming the Lakers stay hot and Golden State continues its consistent pace behind the play of stars Stephen Curry and David Lee, this could mean trouble for Houston if they don't find a way to rattle off a decent winning streak in their remaining 18 games of their regular season. And that won't be an easy task, considering that nine of those games will be played against playoff contending teams.

Adding to the drama, Houston's last game of the season on April 17 will be played against...yup...the Lakers. With a few wins and losses here and there between then, that last match-up of the season could end up counting for a lot more than just pride.

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