Author’s Note: I am not much for the Twitter. So I missed the news today that LaMarcus Aldridge is back while binge watching New Girl with this article open in edit most of the day. I said if Aldridge is back it changes the list. So... I changed the list to reflect that.
With a Portland Trail Blazers loss yesterday the Houston Rockets clinched their fifth consecutive playoff spot, despite having the night off. And with that it’s time to start talking playoffs.
Smart money has the Rockets finishing in third place in the Western Conference. Houston holds a four game lead over the Utah Jazz while trailing the San Antonio Spurs by 6.5 games.
Anything can still happen in the bottom of the standings. The Memphis Grizzlies are in free fall. The Los Angeles Clippers are holding on for dear life. The Blazers and Denver Nuggets are on the rise.
Instead of trying to predict who the Western Conference’s six seed and presumed Rockets opponent will be, let’s just rank all the probable playoff teams.
The best to worst playoff matches for the Houston Rockets:
They Got This
1. Minnesota Timberwolves: They’re just too young. Their scoring can’t keep pace with Houston’s and they surrender 107 points a contest. The Timberwolves hung a loss on the Rockets this year. But it came on the second night of a back-to-back in Minnesota when Houston played a home game the night before. That has been Houston’s only back-to-back loss this season.
2. Denver Nuggets: They’re on the rise, but their ceiling just isn’t high enough. The Rockets beat the Nuggets in their only meeting, but this match up will run twice in the next four games. A clear sense of how Jokic changes the game will be on display. Since January, Denver’s record against playoff teams of both conferences is 6 - 10. While they’re 10 - 3 against non-playoff teams. There’s serious promise on this roster, but it won’t be actualized in time for the 2017 playoffs.
3. Memphis Grizzlies: They’ve been in an absolute free fall. Memphis cracked a five game losing streak recently, but did so by calling on 40-year-old Vince Carter to start and lead the team in scoring. James Ennis and Andrew Harrison: Those are people who have started games for the Grizzlies in the last two weeks. The construct of this team has given the Rockets fits with their size and bullying in the past. But Grit & Grind aged rapidly. There’s no denying Gasol and Conley’s skills, but the team’s reputation for slowing down games has become the stuff of the past. Now they try to go tit-for-tat without the necessary personnel.
You Guys Again?
4. Portland Trail Blazers: Just four players remain from the 2014 bad blood playoff series: Harden, Patrick Beverley, Damien Lillard and CJ McCollum. The Portland guards are offensive maestros. But paying both of them means they’ve got no answer to defend any mixture of Harden-Gordon-Beverley-Williams. Every game in this series would be a race to 100 and the Rockets love that. The Blazers are deep, but limited playoff minutes mean the brightest ray of hope for Portland is the resurgence of Jusef Nurkic. Houston has problems with players as large, bullying and agile as Nurkic, but alone he’s not enough. This would be a scoring slug fest and while the Blazers would win at least one of those shootouts there’s little chance they would win four of seven.
5. Oklahoma City Thunder: This series is defined by Russell Westbrook versus Patrick Beverley. Just the fact we can write that sentence tips the scale for Houston. The ability for Houston to slow, agitate or put Westbrook on tilt means the mercurial guard will have to rely on the players around him to win games. If this player-on-player struggle creates inefficiencies or hero ball situations that’s a win for the Rockets. Mike D’Antoni is fine with Westbrook taking as many shots as he wants. In January Westbrook scored 49 points on 34 shots against the Rockets posting a measly +2 plus/minus. Houston won.
6. Los Angeles Clippers: The Clippers are only this high because they’re better than the other teams, not because the Rockets should fear them. Shit, the Rockets have laid out the Clips in both contests this year. The March 1st game featured Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and the Rockets blew out the SoCal fraternity 122 - 103 in the Staples Center. Despite having JJ Redick the Clippers continue to watch the league’s three point evolution pass them by, Rockets included. In the last game between the teams Paul and Redick took 12 threes. Ryan Anderson took 11. Los Angeles could make a run, but their bench is thinner than ever. In a series their scoring won’t keep pace with Houston’s because they’ve committed their offense to their three superstars, it’s a slower pace but without the defensive grindstone mentality that forces their opponents to play that way as well.
Now, there’s a huge gap between the Clippers and the next team on the list.
The Big Fish
7. Golden State Warriors: The Rockets match up as well as anyone does against the Warriors. Hell, Daryl Morey has already declared Houston already intends to turn these games into a tennis match of three pointers:
Golden State hung a loss on Houston in January, but Houston only attempted 35 threes while shooting a paltry 20% on these shots. The Warriors launched 38 attempts while shooting just under 40%. The story of the 125 - 108 loss is in those numbers.
The Rockets have shown an ability to hang with Golden State in a double overtime win at Oracle Arena in December. There were beard heroics, Ryan Anderson played the game of his life on both ends and Draymond Green kicked James Harden in the face. It was wildly entertaining.
A few take aways from that game:
- Kevin Durant was the Warriors best defender. Draymond did his job, but with the Rockets assault coming primarily from the perimeter Durant, not Green, was the most crucial player on that end.
- Andre Iguodala isn’t the Finals MVP anymore. His scoring is down and his defense has lost a serious step. This gives James Harden more avenues. Klay Thompson is a skilled defender who will start with the Harden duty, but the Iguodala decline takes away the impenetrability of former Warriors defensive schemes.
- Steph Curry spent crucial defensive possessions on the bench. Steve Kerr respects the Houston offense and shooting so much that he didn’t feel secure trying to hide Steph Curry on defense.
In the Warriors win over the Rockets, Kevin Durant scored 32 points on 63% shooting. And while we’ve been given a timetable for his return there’s no telling what condition Durant will be in by the playoffs. With him the Warriors are fear inspiring. Without him they’ve been mortal.
Sure. These are all reasons why Houston matches up well with Golden State. There’s also the reverse. Which is that Golden State’s offensive and defensive schemes have produced three consecutive 60 win seasons and they could still treat the Western Conference Playoffs like the line at Chipotle. ‘How does no one in front of us know how to order? We know what we want, can we just cut? I can’t believe we have to wait in this line.’
8. San Antonio Spurs: The Spurs just overcame a sixteen point deficit at the end of the first quarter to beat the Rockets with a Kawhi Leonard three and D sequence we don’t need to link to. Gregg Popovich should be feared. Even with constant injuries to his rotation players Pop finds ways to win games.
Written before Aldridge’s return: The injury to Aldridge is a giant question mark. Aldridge played each of the four games against the Rockets this season and the Spurs have no timetable for his return. If Aldridge were not out the Spurs would be one spot higher in this ranking.
The power forward’s presence can’t be replaced, but a facsimile can be delivered from the Gasol-Lee-Dedmon combo. That platoon has done decent against the Rockets big men so far this year. Most importantly Leonard will be back. Isn’t that what matters most for San Antonio?
Written after Aldridge’s return: The Spurs system is proving ageless. They’re getting quality play from their younger players and have forced us to learn who DeWayne Dedmon, Dejounte Murray and Davis Bertans are. Classic Spurs. Here’s three guys you’ve never heard of, now they’re going to irritate all your rotation players who are better than them.
Oh. Also they just pulled Pau Gasol and David Lee into a system that made them two years younger and rests them responsibly. Great.
Also... the league has changed dramatically and they’ve changed with it. Hello, Pau Gasol three pointers.
At the end of the day the Spurs are smart and their system works on both ends of the court. It may take them a quarter to warm up or to circle their prey. But after a quarter they know how to force turnovers, find the openings in your defense and exploit mismatches. The Rockets meanwhile have lots of turnovers, openings in their defense and can often cede defensive mismatches. Gulp.
In this season’s four games the Spurs won three of four against the Rockets. And they were close: Two point win. Six point loss. Two point loss. Two point loss. Even when Houston lost, they kept it close.
9. Utah Jazz: WHAT! WHAT? Utah! Yes, Utah.
The Rockets are 1 - 2 against Utah this season. Including a recent home loss when Utah without Derrick Favors and George Hill. Utah is up here because of their defense. Imagine that! An NBA team playing defense in 2017.
Rudy Gobert creates problems on both ends. He’s big enough to out rebound smaller Rockets big men while being agile enough to keep pace with the Rockets pace of play. The Rockets often run bigger players off the court with their pace of play. Their speed and shooting won’t force Gobert (or Favors) from the court.
The Jazz have the slowest pace in the NBA, just 93.7 possessions per 48 minutes. While the NBA gets faster and faster the Jazz still slow the game down. They boast the league’s fourth highest rebound percentage and the league’s third highest defensive rebound percentage.
They don’t allow opponents second chance. The 9 offensive rebounds they allow a game is the league’s third lowest mark.
This control prevents second chance points and fast breaks. The Jazz allow the second lowest points off second chances in the NBA (Houston is 25th). And they allow the second lowest points on fast breaks in the NBA (Houston is 17th).
All these factors have helped the Jazz achieve the league’s third best defensive rating surrendering 102.3 points per 100 possessions.
All of this leads to the second biggest problem the Jazz will pose for the Rockets... Utah allows the second fewest three point attempts in the NBA, 22.8 attempts a game. A combination of swingmen and bigs who can move helps push opposing teams off the three point line.
It’s worked against the Rockets. Houston is averaging 40.6 three point attempts a game. In their games against Utah the Rockets have attempted 32, 30 and 31 threes respectively.
So there it is. Utah brings a total clash of style to the court against the Rockets and it already worked against them twice this season.
Argue away in the comments!