Houston Rockets 2020 Playoff Preview
The Houston Rockets embraced the chaos of the 2019 offseason and channeled it into the NBA’s wackiest experiment. After flipping point god Chris Paul to Oklahoma City for Russell Westbrook, the Rockets star studded backcourt stumbled in the early going of the season. But Daryl Morey and Mike D’Antoni injected the sputtering Rockets with some extra fuel, flipping center Clint Capela to the Hawks in a deal that landed them veteran three-and-D wing Robert Covington. With RoCo in the fold, the Rockets went with a micro-ball approach and transformed into a lightning fast group that hustles for steals, squares up with goliaths, and shoots threes like the tired dude who's always the trailer in a pickup game. The "Pocket-Rockets" caught Western Conference heavyweights like the Lakers by surprise in the bubble’s seeding games, securing the 4 seed behind ridiculous shooting and timely play from James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and Austin Rivers (!?).
Unfortunately, injuries struck at the worst time, taking a rejuvenated Westbrook out of their first round matchup against friend-turned-foe Chris Paul and the Thunder. Harden and co. will have to gear up for a tough fight against well-matched opposition in the form of a rugged OKC team; we’ll see whether the Rockets can fly clean and weather the storm.
Biggest Strength: Shooting
The Rockets have been scorching from deep in the Orlando bubble. While Damian Lillard has been the biggest story, Houston’s James Harden leads the bubble in win shares; combined with the Rockets supporting cast, Houston features an offense that leads the league in both three-point attempts and makes. On the court, this results in a uniquely annoying brand of basketball, where teams can do everything right to build a lead and lose it in the blink of an eye if one of the Rockets' many shooters gets hot. At the center of it all is Harden, manufacturing great looks for his teammates through smart dribble penetration and floor-bending gravity.
Biggest Weakness: Rebounding
By committing to their pint-sized identity, the Rockets already entered the bubble as a team that couldn’t get boards. The loss of Russell Westbrook - effectively tied with Covington for the team lead at 8 rebounds a game - for most of the first round only exacerbates the Rockets greatest weakness. PJ Tucker will have his hands full with human-ox hybrid Steven Adams, so someone else will need to step up to prevent the Rockets from getting absolutely mauled on the glass, or else OKC will have a great opportunity to make this series a toss-up.
Team’s X-Factor: Can they force turnovers?
To counter their lack of size and rebounding, the Rockets have invested heavily in manufacturing turnovers at the defensive end. The Rockets are third in steals heading into the first round of the playoffs. PJ Tucker and Covington are relentless irritants, harassing opposing ball handlers nearly every possession. Harden has quietly transformed into a net positive defender, using his size and great body positioning to bait opponents into careless mistakes. Winning the turnover battle against a disciplined OKC team will be crucial in allowing the Rockets to get out and run for those precious transition threes - the lifeblood of the Houston offense.
Players to Watch: Austin Rivers
Doc's son will be in line for a big time role with Westbrook out. Rivers dropped a career high 41 points against Sacramento last sunday, and will likely be inserted into the starting lineup. Rivers certainly has his flaws as a player, but when he gets hot he can become a dangerous scorer; he's got those herky-jerky dribble moves that leave his defender off balance enough to leverage his surprising speed and get to the rack. Rivers will need to show up against the likes of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to take some much needed pressure off of Harden, who will be seeing relentless double teams and off-ball pressure all series long.
Estimated Playoff Run
It’s been a strange year for Houston. But despite all the ups and downs of a team trying to figure itself out for most of the year, Houston largely finds itself in the same position they were in last year. How far they go will largely be dictated by the play of the Bearded One, something that should give Rockets fans optimism, as Harden has been exceptional in the bubble so far.
The road will not be easy; they will have to battle through a genuinely tough OKC squad first, with a second-round matchup with the Lakers looming, and there's also the powerhouse Clippers on the other side of the bracket to worry about. If they can survive against OKC and get Westbrook back and healthy for round two, Houston will be a serious threat. D’Antoni is likely coaching for his job, and many changes will be coming for Houston in the offseason if they can’t go all the way. I expect a spirited effort, an upset win, and Houston’s best finish since 2017.
My final prediction: a Western Conference Finals Exit.