The Houston Rockets are still going to beat the Dallas Mavericks in this opening-round NBA Playoff series, let's get that out of the way right now. They'll probably do it at home on Tuesday night, and they'll probably do it fairly resoundingly, perhaps just as resoundingly as the Mavericks thrashed them on Sunday night in Dallas.
A sweep would have been nice, only because it would've been -- symbolically, at least -- a sign of dominance over a team that, let's face it, is really fun to dominate and embarrass in every conceivable way. Mark Cuban, Midget Barea, Dirk's Count Chocula face -- there's a lot to "sports hate" about the Dallas Mavericks.
However, one of the benefits of playing a seven-game series each round is that the truth generally bubbles to the surface over a best-of-seven, and honestly, this was a Rockets team that was probably feeling a little too good about itself up 3-0 on a wounded, dysfunctional Mavericks squad.
If the Rockets make a deep playoff run, we will likely look back at Sunday night's 121-109 as a necessary reminder of their flaws, a loss for the greater good.
The Rockets are still one of seven teams that can win the NBA championship, but Sunday night's game, which for the Rockets was fine for 12 minutes and then the basketball equivalent of food poisoning for a majority of the other 36 minutes, reminded us that the Rockets have major issues that will prevent them from winning an NBA title if they are not addressed on a game-by-game basis.
They include, but are not limited to, the following:
1. J.J. Barea looked like the Puerto Rican Chris Paul. I can't help but feel partially to blame for Barea's offensive outburst in this series, after making numerous comments on the air and in print that Barea had his one good game for the series in Game 1. I jinxed it. As it turns out, not only has Barea played well, but he single-handedly has Rajon Rondo veering much closer to being a Mid Level Exception signing this offseason than a near max contract somewhere. The stark difference in Dallas between having Rondo on the floor and Barea on the floor this series has been astounding. Last night, Barea was the catalyst with 17 points and 13 assists. If this is what Barea is doing, what will Chris Paul and Tony Parker do to the Rockets in the next round?
2. When the threes aren't falling, then what? Rockets fans and Rocket management were wondering why Kevin McHale didn't get more notice for NBA Coach of the Year, and I suppose anecdotally it's a fair point. He was the steward of a team whose regular starters missed more than 100 combined games this season, and still managed to improve over last season and garner a two seed in the brutal Western Conference. That's all well and good. However, we saw on Sunday night that the Rockets are a pretty simple basketball creature -- when they're knocking down three point shots, they're incredibly difficult to beat, and when they're not, they get dominated by J.J. Barea and Al-Farouq Aminu. If you had to explain the Rockets metaphorically, they're more blackjack than they are chess, more about the percentages than the countermoves. The frustrating thing about last night is that they had a clear advantage in the paint with Dwight Howard getting Tyson Chandler in foul trouble, and they just went away from it as soon as they fell behind.
3. Terrence Jones and Trevor Ariza are schizo. Honestly, this is more about Jones than it is Ariza, but for Game 4 purposes, I'm lumping them together. The fact is that Ariza is what he is -- a generally deadly corner three shooter, an athletic pest on the wing, and a guy with some championship pedigree. He should never be putting the ball on the floor for more than three dribbles, and he should never be shooting anything other than transition dunks and open threes. He didn't do those things on Sunday. Instead, he decided to make Sunday a demonstration on how poor a shot the 22-foot jumper is. Jones is the bigger problem, because he is capable of being a real difference maker, but he's also capable of completely vanishing, and the problem is that by the time you find out which version of Jones has shown up on a given night, it's midway through the second quarter. I caught all kinds of heat for pointing this out after Game 1 (mainly because Jones actually had a pretty good game), but Jones is one of the weakest bigs in the league at finishing in traffic, which is odd because he's such a ferocious shot blocker at the other end of the floor. With no Donatas Motiejunas and the Rockets' relying on Clint Capela for stretches, they need "Game 1 Jones" every night.
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4. Dwight needs to make free throws. Dwight was a dismal 3-13 from the line on Sunday night. Honestly, this might be the biggest reason why I have zero desire to see the Spurs in the second round -- Gregg Popovich will pick away at Dwight Howard's free throw shooting (and Josh Smith's and Clint Capela's, for that matter) like a blister scab. He will extend the games to four hours if he needs to. (Honestly, does Pop strike you as someone who has somewhere more important to be at one in the morning when Dwight is attempting his 51st and 52nd free throws of the evening?) At least with the Clippers, the Rockets can administer a proportional response on DeAndre Jordan and Doc Rivers and McHale can negotiate a "cease fire" at halftime or something.
Sometimes you need a little adversity thrust your way to remind you of who you truly are. The fact is that the Rockets are one Monta Ellis clank at the end of regulation in Game 3 from possibly heading back to Houston tied 2-2. The Rockets will win this series, of that I have no doubt. And if this playoff run continues for several more weeks, Sunday's loss may be viewed in retrospect as a needed disappointment, a necessary kick in the ass.
That is assuming, of course, that the Rockets knock down their threes on Tuesday.