Game one of the most important playoff series of the year tips off tonight, and to celebrate we at Red94 put together our own little roundtable to discuss what we think about the Houston Rockets and the playoffs this season. Mitchell Felker, Paul McGuire, Richard Li and myself answer five burning questions below.
What do you think is the reasonable ceiling for the Rockets this year?
MF: I believe that the Rockets are the highest variance team in the playoffs, so nothing would surprise me at this point. The Blazers could average 120 points a game and knock them out in the first round, or the Rockets could continue their pseudo-domination of the Spurs and make the WCF. That’s as far as I’m willing to push it though, because Kevin Durant seems to relish playing Houston (and Harden), and the Rockets have looked mostly helpless against the Clippers. It would take a mini-miracle to make the Finals.
PM: I think this team can win a championship if everything goes right ( namely: the Clippers get knocked out by the Thunder), but Conference Finals is the more reasonable expectation. It’s true that San Antonio does not care about the regular season, but Houston has the athleticism and superstars to have a reasonable chance of beating them. I also want to see a Howard-Duncan rematch in the playoffs, especially after Duncan manhandled Howard last year and was spotted grinning at Howard at the very end of the series.
RL: They can make the conference finals. They obviously have home court advantage in the first round and the Blazers are probably the most tired team in the Playoffs. Next round is presumably against the Spurs. Not enough has been said about the Rockets having actually swept the Spurs during the regular season (four games since it’s inter-division). No one expects a four game sweep in the playoffs, but it’s a matchup the Rockets have proven they can win. But in the conference finals, presumably against either the Thunder of the Clippers, the Rockets face matchups they have yet to win consistently.
FW: I don’t know if this makes me a homer, but I can realistically see Houston in the Conference Finals. If the Rockets and Spurs meet in the second round, that’s a series Houston can take. Would I favor the Rockets going into San Antonio? No, of course not. The Spurs are probably the most consistent, well-run and exceptional team in pro sports. I’m quite literally going to pick them in every playoff series ever until Gregg Popovich (possibly the best NBA head coach extant) retires. But they don’t always win, and the Rockets have a good matchup with them and more than a punchers chance at breaking through to the Conference Finals, aka “the respect zone.”
Who’s going to drop off in the playoffs, and who’s going to step up?
PM: As amazing as Harden’s been to close off the regular season, I think he takes it up an extra gear. Harden is still knocked for his poor Finals showing two years ago, and his play against OKC in the first round last year could have been quite a bit better. He’ll want to show that he’s not just a regular season machine, and on top of that, he’s up against a poor defensive team in Portland in the first round and then would be up against the Spurs, a team he seems to relish going up against, in the second. Now who’s going to drop off? Beverley worries me. He’ll be fighting great point guards throughout the entire Western playoffs, whether Lillard, Parker, and maybe Paul or Westbrook for huge minutes on a knee I’m not confident on. I’ll be stunned if he doesn’t drop off offensively in the playoffs.
FW: Sad as it is to say, I expect Terrence Jones to fall off a bit in the playoffs. He’s grown so much during the last season, and at times he looks like a nascent star, but he’s just not there. He’s a solid rotation player, but against the best the NBA has to offer he often just looks overwhelmed. He’ll be useful in certain matchups, like a potential Spurs series, but I expect his role to diminish. Dwight Howard, on the other hand, is about to go nova. Supernova. Helium flash, carbon detonation, SN-2006gy type explosion. He’s finally healthy, been to the finals before, and he knows he can get back there soon. Don’t be surprised is Dwight just grinds Robin Lopez into a fine dust this week.
MF: Boy, do I wish I had the gumption to say Jeremy Lin is going to stepup, but he’s just burned me too many times. In fact, he’s probably my candidate to be the one to drop off. I almost chose Terrence Jones, with all his experience playing in big games at Kentucky, but LaMarcus Aldridge poses too much of a matchup problem to expect him to elevate his game much, at least in the first round. My pick is Francisco Garcia. He’s been put on the back-burner most of season in favor of Omri Casspi & Jordan Hamilton, but his do-it-all kind of game and steady hand will be important in the playoffs.
RL: Terrence Jones will drop off if for no other reason than being matchup squeezed out of the lineup. He’ll nominally start against the Blazers, but no one will be surprised if he plays less than 20 minutes per game as the Rockets use a revolving door to guard Lamarcus Aldridge. Ultimately, I think going small with (probably) Harden guarding Aldridge as opposed to big with Asik on Aldridge is going to be McHale’s preference. Either way, Jones is not in the picture. In the second round, the Rockets will probably face a Splitter/Duncan frontcourt that will, again, squeeze Jones out due to matchup preferences.
Extending that previous paragraph’s logic, the players who will be in best position to step up will be Asik when the Rockets go big, or Lin when the Rockets go small. Since I already said that I expect McHale to prefer small over big, my series of deductions has to end with Lin being in the best position to step up. Gulp. Whether or not he does is anyone’s guess, but he’ll have his opportunities to do so.
What coaching adjustments would you like to see going into the post season?
FW: Can we get all than PnR we’ve been waiting for? I kind of wonder if McHale has been sandbagging a bit, and they know full well how devastating their many, many pick and roll options are. Asik is one of the best screeners around (even if he does set illegal screens at Garnett-like frequency) and Howard is a roll man nonpareil. The Harden-Lin pick and roll was never really explored, Parsons and Jones can both handle the ball well for their size, and there are some devastating pick and pop options. They’ve barely flirted with this in the regular season, and it would be a great move to drop it all on the NBA in the playoffs.
MF: For the first round at least, I’d like to see the Rockets pick-and-roll the Blazers to death. The Rockets are one of the best P&R teams in the league, while the Blazers struggle mightly defending it. Dwight prefers his postups, but the Houston needs to work the middle of the floor. And if Houston’s forwards struggle against Aldridge, we could see more twin-towers and Harden & co. would have two behemoths to run around.
RL: I want to see the Rockets start dictating matchups instead of reacting to them. Specifically, I think Donatas Motiejunas presents interesting matchup possibilities. He is, in my opinion, the “stretchiest” 4 in the entire western conference playoffs. He’s a legit 7-feet tall and can comfortably play outside the 3-point line. I don’t think the Blazers or the Spurs like the idea of leaving Lopez/Splitter alone with Howard in the block, but they also don’t want Aldridge/Duncan to wear themselves out by guarding Howard down low. Provided DMo doesn’t average 62 fouls per game, I think he could approach 25 very good minutes per game if used correctly.
PM: The coaching adjustments I REALLY want are the sort that you can’t implement in the two days between the end of the regular season and Game 1, so I’m going to say more Twin Towers. I don’t think Asik and Howard can work together on the court over the long term – but if Howard is going to chase Aldridge around throughout the series like will probably happen, you are going to need rim protection and rebounding with Howard away from the basket. Asik can do that better then Terrence Jones.
Which other team scares you the most and why?
MF: Kevin Durant should win the MVP trophy this year and the Thunder are currently favored to be the WCF representative in the NBA Finals. Oklahoma City has weaknesses like all teams do, but the Rockets have had trouble exploiting them. The recent victory over OKC was important for Houston’s mojo, but with Russell Westbrook not playing it doesn’t really ease any concerns.
PM: I picked the Clippers to finish atop the Western Conference at the beginning of the season, and while I was wrong, I’m still terriified of them. Even if you ignore that they manhandled Houston in the regular season, my perspective on LA is: what’s their weakness? They have a superstar, they have a deep bench, they have shooters, they have a great coach, they have one of the best big men in the league, they’ve looked utterly unstoppable in their games against us, they have an easy first-round match up as the Warriors without Bogut scare no one. The only thing I can think of is that their big man depth is shaky, but that applies to Houston as well. They are the one contender no one is talking about as the season begins, and I think that’s a mistake.
RL: It’s a toss up between the Clippers and Thunder. I’ll say Clippers since the Thunder are probably the more popular answer. They’re a terrible matchup at every position. They don’t have to double Dwight Howard. Chris Paul is wily and doesn’t let Pat Beverley affect his play in the same way that Russell Westbrook does (side note, I’ve never seen worse decision making than from Westbrook when he’s matched up against Beverley; he just turns into the incredible Hulk and tries to SMASH everything). JJ Reddick is the worst kind of 2-guard to oppose Harden, an Energizer bunny who runs around three screens per possession and drills 3-pointers. But unlike against other teams, the Rockets can’t just “hide” Harden on defense by putting him on the opponent’s 4, because the Clippers’ 4 is Blake Griffin.
FW: The Los Angeles Clippers are a nightmare. I know, “regular season doesn’t matter,” but there’s a reason there’s only one team the Rockets failed to grab a single win from. Even the Thunder turned out to be human after all. The Thunder and the Spurs are probably better teams, but the Clippers are just an absolute worst-case scenario for Houston. Chris Paul is like James Harden but with defense and better court vision. Blake Griffin is like Dwight Howard but younger and more explosive. DeAndre Jordan is like Omer Asik but minus a lot of defense and plus the ability to catch the ball and dunk it. They have piles of three point shooters, interior threats and a swarming defense that just rattles the Rockets. I don’t want to see this team in Houston. Not now, not next year, not ever.
Which non-Houston series are you most excited for, either in the first round or a potential series in a later round?
PM: I have to give a shout-out to Wizards-Bulls since I live in DC, but I’m really interested in Heat-Bobcats in the first round. For all of the noise about Indiana’s collapse, Miami has not ended the regular season well either, and they’re up against a smart defensive team whose best player is at one of the positions they struggle to handle. While Miami should win, how dominant they’ll look over the Bobcats, as well as the rotation minutes and health of players like Wade and Battier, will be a huge sign for how the entire Eastern playoffs will shake up.
FW: I’m buying into this Raptors team. What’s not to like? They have a young, athletic team being led by Kyle Lowry, a player we’re very familiar with. Another Ex-Rocket, Patrick Patterson, is also tooling around in T-dot, and DeMar DeRozan is one of the best shooting guards in the league (partially by default). Raps vs Heat (if it happens) would be a legitimately fun matchup, and I just hope it doesn’t ever air at the same time as a Rockets game.
RL: Warriors versus Clippers. I swear I said this before Game 1! Their regular season matchups were entertaining as hell and it’s only going to get better in the playoffs. Can’t wait for the Steph Curry ten 3-pointers game.
MF: As much flak as we give the Eastern Conference, the potential matchups in the second round could setup for some fantastic basketball. Miami v Brooklyn probably wouldn’t go seven but the Nets love the challenge that is the Miami Heat. Toronto will certainly have their say, but the Nets (read: Paul Pierce) always make LeBron work. And Indiana v Chicago might not be for everybody, with their defense-heavy schemes and blue-collar rosters, but it would be a matchup of the kings of adversity versus the chumps of it. And either team that escapes that series would make for an intriguing matchup with (presumably) Miami in the ECF.