After six long months, now comes the payoff.
From about the time that Yao Ming's feet stopped fully cooperating, through every single minor trade to flip a couple second round picks into a reserve player that could then be mixed into another trade for an eventual asset to land a superstar, through a league aborted trade for what he thought was that superstar (Pau, we barely knew ye!), and eventually through a meticulous recruitment that landed Dwight Howard, Daryl Morey has assembled this Rockets team for April.
And May. And June.
And it all begins Sunday at Toyota Center, and all things considered, when you scout the West from top to bottom, and factor in all that went right and wrong for the Rockets this season, things line up as well as one could hope for a postseason run.
The Portland Trail Blazers come to town Sunday night to play the final of what will be eight opening round Game 1's around the league this weekend, and ostensibly while these teams are identical from a won-loss standpoint (54-28) and similar statistically (Rockets 4th offense, 12th defense, +4.7 point differential; Portland 5th offense, 16th defense, +4.0 point differential), the general perception around the league seems to be that this series should play out relatively easily, as 4 vs 5 series go, for the Rockets. (The Rockets are -220 favorites in Vegas.)
Why is that?
Well, start with the obvious factor -- the Rockets' home court advantage, which should actually prove to be more valuable at the beginning of the series than at the end of the series, allowing the Rockets Games 1 and 2 to suck the life out of a team with very little postseason experience among its players-that-matter.
As it turns out, the most important play of the Rockets' season might have ended up being this three pointer by James Harden last month to complete a massive fourth quarter comeback and send this game against the Blazers to overtime...
That was, in theory, the difference between starting the playoffs at home or on the road. (Side note: How the hell does Harden get his feet set on the side of the court like that with so little space, and still get behind the line? VERY underrated basketball sense.)
The second thing to keep in mind is that Portland arrived at their 54-28 record with a relatively healthy cast of characters. Aside from LaMarcus Aldridge, who missed thirteen games over the course of the season, the other five starters for the Blazers all played in all 82 games. In other words, a lot had to go right for the Blazers to get to 54-28, the Rockets overcame a lot to get to 54-28.
Meanwhile, the Rockets have their full rotation of players healthy (or at least "ready to go"), which has rarely happened this season. Terrence Jones led the team in games played with 76, and their third most important player, point guard Patrick Beverley, missed 26 games this season. It's no surprise that the Rockets went on their best run of the season, a 15-2 stint from late January to early March, with their rotation largely intact. (By the way, the final game of that stretch? The overtime win over Portland. It's a sign!)
Finally, the Rockets, for all of their youth (fourth youngest team in the league and the youngest in the postseason), have serious playoff experience, with the nucleus of this team (minus Dwight) having been through a series together last season against Oklahoma City, and their two best players having been to the NBA Finals. The Blazers, meanwhile, have Aldridge and Nicolas Batum with some random playoff appearances and Mo Williams with some time as chum in the wake of LeBron in Cleveland.
Other than that? Nothing to really speak of.
So, yes, if the Rockets do these three things...
1. Stars play like stars. Against the Blazers this season, Harden averaged 30.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists, and Dwight smacked them around for 25.5 points and 13.5 rebounds. If that happens in this series, start surfing the net for hotels on the Riverwalk.
2. Frustrate Damian Lillard This is Lillard's first postseason, and apparently already Patrick Beverley is in his head a little bit. For a guy who was in Russia like 15 months ago, it's amazing how relevant Patrick Beverley has made himself. Given the roster of point guards in these playoffs in the West (Parker, Westbrook, Paul, Lillard, Curry, Conley), Beverley's grit is a huge x-factor. Also, he would make an excellent WWE heel. Just sayin'.
3. Protect the basketball The Rockets led the league in turnovers among teams-that-were-trying (Philly actually led the league) with 15.4 per game. With the playoffs tending to slow down pace-wise, possessions become more valuable. The Rockets turn the ball over a lot, and don't really make up for it on the other end by forcing many (28th in opponent turnover percentage). Don't give any away.
... then I see them winning in five. And I think they will do those things. ROCKETS IN FIVE.
Other playoff predictions:
EASTERN CONFERENCE 1 Indiana vs 8 Atlanta Indiana has finished the season on a 6-9 stretch. Thankfully, for them, they catch the weakest playoff team of the modern era, a 38-44 Atlanta team that's been missing its best player all season. INDIANA IN FOUR.
2 Miami vs 7 Charlotte This series has some sneaky potential. Miami has played in a ton of games the last three seasons, and health for Dwyane Wade has always been an issue. Now, it's a bit of an issue for Chris Bosh as well. Bobcats owner Michael Jordan has actually stumbled upon a formula that's yielded watchable basketball (Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker). Still, HEAT IN FIVE.
3 Toronto vs 6 Brooklyn I'm a little perturbed that the seeds got jumbled at the last minute in the East because I was looking forward to a "Wall vs Lowry" battle and a "Bulls vs Nets" bloodbath in the first round. Oh well. Brooklyn is actually a slight favorite in this series, and oddly enough, if someone told you at the beginning of the season that these two teams would be playing in the postseason, you'd have been like "Wow, Toronto snuck in as a 7 seed!" Jason Kidd coaching in the postseason for the first time could be, um, interesting. NETS IN SIX.
4 Chicago vs 5 Washington John Wall gets a chance to put himself on the map, say good bye to Kyrie Irving as a member of the "Sizzle" Former Number One Overall Pick Club, and join Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose as members of the "Steak" Former Number One Overall Pick Club. Coming out party alert! WIZARDS IN SEVEN.
1 San Antonio vs 8 Dallas This feels like a surgical, methodical dismantling, with Dallas getting one win at home where Dirk goes nuts. That's it. SPURS IN FIVE.
2 Oklahoma City vs 7 Memphis This is about the worst of the lower seed matchups that the Thunder could have asked for. The Grizzlies are playing good basketball, and I think their style will be very disruptive against a team that can be bullied around a little bit. THUNDER IN SEVEN.
3 LA Clippers vs 6 Golden State I think deep down the Rockets are glad they wound up in the 4 seed and not the 3 seed, in part to avoid a Steph Curry/Klay Thompson barrage of threes. This is the best opening round series. CLIPPERS IN SEVEN.