From Chris Mannix's mailbag on SI.com today:
You were wrong about the Rockets. After the trade deadline, you said they had basically given up on the season with the Rafer Alston deal. Care to reconsider your assessment?
-- Kerry, Splendora, Texas
Oh, I was absolutely wrong. But in my defense, anyone who thought the Rockets would be better after Tracy McGrady went down and Alston was shipped out for the Memphis Grizzlies' backup point guard is lying. Houston has benefited from superior perimeter defense from Ron Artest and Shane Battier, a more up-tempo offense with Aaron Brooks and Kyle Lowry splitting the point guard duties and more quick low-post touches for Yao Ming.
Can they win a playoff series? Maybe. The Rockets have pulled out some close games recently (including a two-point victory at San Antonio on Sunday), partially dispelling the notion that they can't win down the stretch without a go-to scorer. But Houston has to find a way to avoid Utah. The Jazz, as was apparent in Tuesday night's matchup in Salt Lake City, are a matchup nightmare for the Rockets. Carlos Boozer runs circles around Yao, and Mehmet Okur kills them from the perimeter. And they know it. If the playoffs started today, the Rockets would open at home against the Jazz. I don't think home-court advantage in this situation is enough.
Wrong, wrong and wrong.
1. "...anyone who thought the Rockets would be better after Tracy McGrady went down and Alston was shipped out for the Memphis Grizzlies' backup point guard is lying."
Not true! As seen here, here, here and here. This blog has continuously stated that the Rockets are better off without T-Mac unless he is 100% healthy. We've also had an eternal history of stating that Rafer Alston is not the answer and that he had to go. We did think the Rockets would be better. There's evidence.
2. "... more quick low-post touches for Yao Ming"?
Wait... what? If anything, Yao has been less of a factor on offense post-trade. He's taken fewer shots, he has shot far fewer free throws. Ron Artest is the one getting all of the touches, and he's not exactly a fan of dumping it down into Yao.
3. "Houston has to find a way to avoid Utah."
No. Absolutely not. The goal is to win the whole thing, i.e. the championship. (Utah wouldn't know anything about that, but...). The Jazz are in our collective heads. This is no longer in dispute. The Rockets have a mental block about playing in Utah. At the same time, the Jazz have issues on the road, and the Rockets have been amazingly good at home (ask LeBron).
The Rockets need to beat Utah just to prove to themselves that they are among the elite. Further, winning a ring without beating Utah would somehow seem hollow. Matchup nightmare or not -- I want to face Utah in the playoffs. Maybe I'm just crazy, but I do not ever want to have the mindset that I want to "avoid" a particular team. I prefer my team have the attitude that they back down to no one. That includes Utah.
Once the Rockets dispatch of Utah in the playoffs, the team's collective confidence will soar. That will only help the Rockets win three more seven-game series and survive the grueling gauntlet that is the NBA playoffs.
Playing to avoid Utah is like holding a lead and playing not to lose. Or running the prevent defense in football. It never ends well. You should play to win. Period. No matter who the opponent is.
Mark it down: The Rockets will win a playoff series this year.