As the NBA regular season was winding down this week, one popular debate in Houston, particularly after the Memphis Grizzlies' losing to the Clippers on Saturday pushed the Rockets into a control-you-own-destiny situation for at least the five seed in the West, was "Which would be a better scenario for the Rockets -- a first round as the two seed against Dallas or a first round as the five seed against a banged up Portland?
Keeping in mind, the Rockets would have home court in either series, there was a line of thinking that Portland would at least be the easier first round matchup, what with injuries up and down their roster. The Rockets would probably not have home court for the rest of the playoffs after that, but so many Rocket fans just want to win one series right now, the thinking is deal with the second round when it comes.
And as I stood in the Toyota Center on Wednesday night after a Rockets win over the Jazz watching the Pelicans upset the Spurs, thus launching the Rockets into the two seed against the Mavs, all I could think is how stupid the debate as about which first round opponent the Rockets would rather face.
Because the Rockets are not playing for the first round. They're playing for a championship. And the two seed is clearly the more logical path. Plus, are we really scared of the Dallas Mavericks?
No. The answer is "no," we are not scared of the Dallas Mavericks. (And honestly, I am slightly scared of the Trail Blazers on the strength of Damian Lillard's existence alone.)
You knew this is how it had to play out, right? Houston and Dallas? From the time these pictures began matriculating around the internet, it was destiny that these two teams would face off in the postseason...
— All2ReaLTecH (@TECHNO_ELEPHANT) April 16, 2015
So now, here we are. Let's look at four key questions for this series and then I'll put my prediction in writing for all of you to laud or ridicule in the next ten to fourteen days:
1. Which James Harden will show up for this series? It's undeniable that James Harden was a different player this season than he'd been in any of his previous seasons in the league. It says something about just how spectacular he was this season that there was noticeable improvement in all facets of his game, and he was first team all-NBA last season. Harden was the straw that stirred the offense, upgraded his defense significantly, and had a knack for making huge shots when everything around him was bogging down.
However, equally undeniable is the delta the last few years between Regular Season Harden and Playoff Harden. Last season, his effective field goal percentage was 52.9 during the regular season and plummeted to 43.6 percent during the six game loss to the Blazers. His career playoff eFG% is nearly three points less than is regular season eFG%. Regular Season Harden and Playoff Harden need to become identical twins this postseason if the Rockets are to do anything.
2. How distracting will it be staring at Dwight Howard's knee every trip down the floor to make sure it's still working? The Rockets claim that it's full steam ahead with Dwight Howard and his balky knee, and if his somewhat limited minutes over the last few weeks of the regular season are any indicator, we should expect a version of Dwight that looks similar to the one that dominated over large chunks of the Portland series last season. His volume stats may not match up to last year's opening round simply because Harden is playing on another universe and logic dictates everything is running through him, somehow, some way. But make no mistake, for a deep run, the Rockets need a healthy Dwight Howard, a pretty explosive Dwight Howard. Especially when considering that if anything happens to Dwight, the Rockets' solution at the center position is Joey Dorsey, whose free throw attempts would be consider an act of war of they were aimed at enemy countries. Which raises the point....
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3. How does the whole "Hack-a" strategy figure into this series? Is Rick Carlisle willing to attack the Rockets Achilles' heel as ferociously as Gregg Popovich did last Friday at Toyota Center, when he fouled Josh Smith roughly 500 times in seven minutes and forced him to make free throws? Keep in mind, Popovich did this when the Spurs had a lead. It wasn't some tactic to try to come from behind. Pop saw Smith (52 percent) as a walking turnover if he were to be put on the line. And Howard isn't much better at 53 percent. Given the fact that Howard and Smith are two of the Rockets key rotation guys, this issue is not going away any time soon.
4. Which side embraces the hate better? If this were a WWE style tag team match, it would be James Harden, Dwight Howard, and Jason Terry (with Daryl Morey in their corner) versus Chandler Parsons, Dirk Nowitzki, and Rajon Rondo (with Mark Cuban in their corner). So many sports hate fueled storylines here, the banter at the media sessions in between the games has the chance of being nearly as good as the games themselves. Whichever side channels that vitriol properly will be the side that wins the series.
PREDICTION: Rockets in six