Thanks to the Rockets’ 119-108 win over the Kings on Saturday night, all eight spots in the Western Conference playoffs are set. The only thing left to be determined is tournament seeding. With the Warriors being the favorite, seeding really won’t be much of a factor, as everyone will have to go through them to get to the finals. With that in mind, here are what I perceive to be the best and worst possible matchups for the Rockets, as well as keys to a successful playoff run.
Best and worst matchups
When the Rockets are healthy and at their best, it may not be as tough to beat as the Warriors, but nonetheless it will be a challenge.
In terms of matching up, the best route to the conference finals is the one dictated by current standings. If nothing changes, the third-seeded Rockets would get the sixth-seeded Clippers in the first round. The Clippers surprised everyone by clinching a playoff spot after trading away Tobias Harris near the trade deadline. Should both Houston and Denver advance, the Rockets would then take on a very inexperienced Denver Nuggets team in the second round. The Rockets are 3–1 against the Clippers this season.
The Nuggets are battling the Warriors for the top spot in the West. They currently face the challenge of Greg Popovich and the Spurs, or an Oklahoma City Thunder team that has stumbled down the stretch, led by Paul George and Russell Westbrook.
It is not a knock on either Denver or Los Angeles, but as far as talent and experience go, Houston is simply the better team. However, if Houston struggles to shoot the ball from 3, and if their rebounding woes carry into the postseason (Houston is 28th in the league in rebounding), then yes, there is a possibility that either the Clippers or the Nuggets could take the Rockets out early.
The most difficult road to at least the conference finals would be facing the Spurs in the first round and getting the Warriors in the second round again. San Antonio is a terrible matchup for the Rockets; Coach Popovich knows how to beat D’Antoni. In his fifteen years of coaching, D’Antoni not only has never beaten Pop in a series, but none of their postseason match ups even reached a game seven:
Sure, on paper the Rockets are better than San Antonio, but so were the 2016–17 Rockets, and D’Antoni still could not get past the Spurs.
The Warriors, on the other hand, are just loaded. The Rockets have the best chance of anyone to put up a fight, because they shoot so many threes and aren’t intimidated by the Warriors.
You can’t simply shut the Warriors down; it isn’t possible to neutralize all their threats at once. The question becomes: What are the Rockets comfortable giving up? In their three wins against Golden State, Demarcus Cousins did not play in the first two meetings and was not really effective in the meeting at Oracle on Feb. 23. However, in the final game of the season series, Cousins looked very much like himself and had his best game as a Warrior, as Golden State beat Houston without Durant.
Offensively, Houston has a tendency to play iso ball. That may work against other teams, but against a Warriors defense that can be suffocating in the half court, the Rockets will have to utilize more ball movement and player movement if they hope to have offensive success against the Warriors.
Should Houston navigate through the West and reach the finals, another bad match up is the Milwaukee Bucks. Milwaukee has the length and athleticism to challenge Houston in the paint and also make life difficult on the perimeter. It is not a matchup likely to happen, though it would be memorable to see the two top MVP candidates, Harden and Giannis, square off for a championship.
The Jazz, Thunder, and Trail Blazers are capable of challenging Houston. However, the loss of Nurkic was a huge blow against any chance the Blazers had of making any real postseason noise. The Jazz are almost the same team Houston dispatched in 5 games in last year’s semifinals. As tough as the Thunder can be, they are not playing their best basketball right now. the Thunder are not a consistent three-point-shooting team (just 23rd in the NBA in three point percentage). There is a possibility Houston could face one of these three in the first round, as seeding is yet to be determined, but I perceive these three more to be good matchups for Houston than bad.
Keys to a deep run
- Harden and D’Antoni: James Harden backed up last year’s MVP season with another sensational season creating a case to repeat as MVP. The knock on Harden is that while he is sensational during the regular season, he has a bad habit of disappearing when his team needs him the most. Prime examples are Games 6 and 7 of last year’s conference finals, where Harden shrunk and couldn’t push the Rockets to finish the Warriors after CP3 got hurt. The Rockets looked lost without Paul in Games 6 and 7, but how is that possible with Harden healthy? I get that the Warriors are a great team, but the drop-off the Rockets suffered without Paul and with a healthy Harden is inexcusable. This postseason, if Houston is fighting elimination, Harden needs to do everything he can to will the Rockets to victory. Because even in defeat, a memorable MVP performance will immediately change the “Harden is a playoff choker” narrative.
As for D’Antoni, in his fifteen years of coaching, his teams have never reached the NBA finals. Some of it is luck: would the Rockets have advanced if CP3 hadn’t gotten hurt? Whatever the case may be, and even though the Warriors essentially run the NBA, D’Antoni has to figure out the right combinations and put together the best possible plan to get the Rockets over the hump. That plan may include ditching the iso ball; the Rockets sometimes like to run.
- Kick bad habits and improve the weaknesses: A bad habit the Rockets have this year is that sometimes they will build a lead early in the game, then go to sleep for parts of the third quarter; then suddenly they have to fight and claw for a win. In the postseason, if the Rockets build an early lead, they must not let up. They may get away with some slippage in the regular season, but any slippage in the playoffs could not only cost Houston a game, but maybe even a series.
Another area the Rockets are weak at is rebounding the basketball. Houston is 28th in defensive rebounding; come playoff time, the Rockets need to be better at controlling the paint and finishing defensive possessions with rebounds. If they don’t, they could be in some trouble.
- Stay healthy: I am not reliving the summer of “what if Chris Paul was healthy?” That was torture for fans; and losing a series because one player didn’t play when the current MVP was still in the series was and still is a pretty lame excuse.
The Rockets have had their fair share of injuries this season, and still have to deal with some nagging injuries as the playoffs approach. If Houston is to do any real damage in May and June, they will need their full complement of players. Otherwise it could be another “what if” offseason, and I do not want to go through that again.
The Rockets could finish as high as third and as low as sixth; but with so few games remaining, a total collapse would have to happen for them to fall that far. Regardless, seeding in the West won’t matter, as eventually everyone will have to go through the Warriors. For the Rockets, the things that matter are health and how well they are playing. As long as they go into the postseason strong and with everyone healthy, the team who was so close to knocking off the Warriors a year ago will once again have a shot at the ring.