Man, what a difference a year makes. A year ago, the city of Houston was split on whether we even wanted the Rockets to make the playoffs at all, remember? The choices were a) miss the playoffs and keep a late lottery-protected first round pick they dealt in the Ty Lawson (remember him?) deal, or b) make the playoffs and begin walking the postseason's equivalent of the "green mile" in a first round trouncing at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.
The Rockets "achieved" the latter, bowed out in five games and begun a reconstruction process that has resulted in a 2016-2017 team that's achieved beyond even the most optimistic Rockets fan's expectations. The Rockets finished the regular season with the third-best record in the NBA (55-27), just one game behind the record of the team that went to the Western Conference Finals two seasons ago.
Now comes what will be, in all likelihood, the most highly anticipated first-round series in this postseason, the matchup between the top two MVP candidates, former teammates, now fierce foes. It's Westbrook...it's Harden...it's the NBA PLAYOFFS ON TNT!
Quite honestly, this series needs a touch of late-'80s Vince McMahon. I love Kevin Harlan, but Vinnie Mac cackle-screaming about Russ versus The Beard the same way he described The MEGA POWERS EXPLODING before Wrestlemania V would be the greatest television of 2017. Honestly, if McMahon were in charge of the NBA, not only would he be doing the play-by-play on this series, but he would let this series decide the MVP award, likely by dangling the trophy over the court like a Money In The Bank briefcase. (These are the things I think of when I drink.)
Alas, Adam Silver is not Vince McMahon (sucks for Adam), but we do get some juicy story lines and angles to watch over the next ten days or so. Here, briefly, are my favorites...
4. Anderson from downtown
We know the one thing the Rockets love to do — launch three pointers. They're practically three-point addicts. In fact, they made more three pointers this season than any other team in NBA history. If you're going to be a wing player on this team and get rotation minutes, you better be able to shoot the basketball. (Corey Brewer found this out the hard way.) Of the Rockets' key wing guys who can shoot the basketball, most of them can hurt opponents in other ways. Trevor Ariza is a versatile defender, Patrick Beverley is their heart and soul, and Eric Gordon and Lou Williams can score in multiple ways. Ryan Anderson is the one guy who I'd call a "designated sniper," which is a nice way of saying "If he isn't knocking down threes, he's kind of useless." Harden is the best Rockets player, but Anderson's shooting is what puts this offense in overdrive, and gets them scoring in bunches.
3. Postseason officiating
This is an aspect of a series (and of the postseason in general) that is always tough to calibrate, because crews change from game to game. How tightly things are called in this series will be a definite factor, as Oklahoma City, with its size and physicality advantage inside (the best rebounding team in the league), would seem to prefer a more loosely called game. Also, whether officials will continue to give James Harden the benefit of the call on his "get fouled on a three pointer where he had no intention of shooting, but the defender's arm was RIGHT THERE" play will be interesting to see.
2. Clint Capela versus OKC's bigs
Speaking of the OKC bigs, now is the time for Clint Capela to shine. There's a reason (actually, several reasons) that the Rockets felt perfectly fine letting Dwight Howard walk away from his contract last offseason — it's because a) Capela is more willing than Dwight to do the dirty work (pick and rolls, rebound, rim protect), especially offensively, and b) Capela can do it nearly as effectively for about a tenth of the cap hit. Capela has the potential to get paid Dwight-type dollars someday, so a "coming out" party this postseason would greatly benefit future generations of Capelas.
1. Texas Death Match — PatBev versus Russ
Let's be real, the marquee reads "Harden versus Westbrook," but they will rarely, if ever, be pitted directly against each other during the series. Andre Roberson will spend most of his time checking Harden, and Beverley will spend most of his minutes tormenting Russ. And oh, how glorious will it be watching these two red asses go against each other for five, six, seven games?
Want a taste? Well, here you go...
SERIES PREDICTION: Rockets in 6
Stay tuned to the Houston Press throughout the playoffs — we'll have coverage of every Rockets game.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.
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