1. The health of Dwight Howard
Despite James Harden's MVP-level season, it's Dwight Howard's health that holds the key to the Rockets winning this series. With Howard on a minutes restriction and Donatas Motiejunas out for the year, the Rockets front line is less deep and versatile than anticipated for the postseason run. Despite being effective in limited minutes upon his return from injury, Dwight has looked considerably less explosive than what we're used to seeing. If he can at least bring the elite-level defense and rebounding that's been his career trademark and help cover some of the Rockets defensive deficiencies on the perimeter (cough, cough, JET and Pablo), Houston should be poised to advance.
2. James Harden gets out of his playoff funk
We all know Harden's post season narrative thus far. Despite averaging 26.5 points, 5.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 2.0 steals in the playoffs as a Rocket, Harden has shot just 38 percent from the field and 31 percent from downtown. More importantly, the Rockets haven't won a series since Harden came over from Oklahoma City. Not only is Harden due to take one over, this is almost a must-do and a must-win for him. Otherwise, the ugly shadow of Tracy McGrady's similar playoff failures still looms over the franchise, the fan base and Harden, ready to infect another superstar Rocket shooting guard with its post-season malaise. Harden can squash that narrative with a virtuoso performance. The pressure is on.
3. Free throws
As Matt covered here earlier in the week, the Rockets' biggest weakness may be in the inability of their big men to hit the freebies. With the Mavs certain to employ the Hack-a-Dwight, Hack-a-Smith, Hack-a-Dorsey and Hack-a-Clint strategy at some point, at least one of the Rockets big men must step up and hit some meaningful free throws, even if it means going Rick Barry style out there. My money is on Dwight to hit a few that count.
The Rockets are an above average offensive team, ranking 12th this season in total offensive rating, while Dallas is a below average defensive team, ranking 20th. Based on this history, the Rockets should be able to score and do so efficiently and effectively. Where the true difference will be made is when the Rockets 6th-ranked defense takes on the Dallas 5th-ranked offense. If the Rockets can slow down the Mavs even a little, they should be able to score enough to take the series.
The Rockets are the 7th-best team in the league in offensive rebound percentage, and led by Howard, their athletic front court can be counted on to crash the boards hard. Dallas, meanwhile, is the second-worst defensive rebounding team in the league, and the Rockets clear advantage in this area should result in plenty of both second-chance opportunities and points. Even without Motiejunas, the Rockets front court still maintains an edge in both versatility and explosiveness, and maximizing on this advantage should result in the Rockets moving on to round two.