By Adam Spolane

Wednesday night’s win over Denver locked the Rockets into the Western Conference’s 3-seed, but with nothing to play for, the team still has to take the floor four more times before the playoffs begin next week, but they won’t be treated like normal games.

“I think that we have to look at them as practices since we don’t have a lot of practice time, so work on the things we have to work on and also, just try to be efficient,” Trevor Ariza said before practice Thursday.

Thursday’s practice was rare. After playing in Phoenix Sunday night, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni gave his team Monday and Tuesday off before playing Denver, and with three games in four nights looming to close out the regular season its not hard to imagine Thursday’s practice being the team’s last before the postseason, and if you listen to D’Antoni, playing a game is a lot more beneficial.

“It’s better to practice, I think, against another opponent that doesn’t know your stuff,” he said. “You get a better practice in and you get sharper and you keep your conditioning and then you get ready to play.”

“We still want to have kind of a dress rehearsal, get everybody back normally and get them to feel a little bit comfortable.”

After missing six games with a sprained ankle, Ryan Anderson will make his return Friday against the Pistons in a limited role. The Rockets will play a back-to-back against the Kings and Clippers starting Sunday before closing the regular season at home against Minnesota on Wednesday.

“We have Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Sunday and Monday will be tough because they are back-to-backs, so we’ll be careful with that, but Wednesday we will try a dress rehearsal and Sunday for sure,” D’Antoni said.

As for who will play over the last four games, D’Antoni says not much will change from how he’s handled minutes through the first 78 games of the season.

“Nene needs to rest and he’ll do that,” he said. “We’ll probably want to find a room for Eric who’s been playing much more minutes than normal. Somebody like James a little bit, I think he’s over his wrist (injury) pretty much, and he had five days off, so he’s gotta get back and we’re going to be relying on him heavily in a week and you just can’t lay around for a week and think ‘ok, I’ll turn it on’, sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t, so you gotta be careful.”

Despite playing an all but one game this season, Ariza says he wants to be out there, even though the games have no bearing on the Rockets playoff standing.

“I feel if I’m healthy, and I’m available that I can play, he said.”

D’Antoni ultimately has the final say on who plays and sits in each game, but he explains, the decision is not a unilateral one.

“I rely on my athletic trainers and conditioning coach to tell me what is best to get the guy to (the playoffs) mentally and physically the best they can be and if they tell me he needs to sit out completely they will,” he said. “If he tells me ‘you know what, they need to play about 10 minutes of really high aerobics stuff, then we will.”

“They have the data. They know each player differently and our team will be different from another team, so I don’t ever question what another team does because I figure they do the same thing we do- they look at the data and try to figure out what’s best and try to hit all the points.”

Regardless of who plays, and how long they play, the Rockets will try to win the last four games of the season. The team might handle those games differently from the first 78, but in order to get prepared for what lies ahead, Ariza knows they must play with a purpose.

“When we’re on the court, we’ve got to go hard, work on the things we need to work on and that’s it, that’s all you can do.”


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