After a two-month rough patch to start the year (which saw Houston outside the playoff picture), the Rockets have been playing their best basketball heading into the playoffs, winning 20 of their last 24 games to close out the regular season. Finishing with a record of 53-29 may not have seemed like such a tough task before the season started; given the injuries to Chris Paul and Clint Capela that sidelined each for some time and the load James Harden had to carry, it is incredible what the Rockets achieved winning over 50 games.
Biggest Strength: Offense, offense, and more offense
The backbone of the Rockets’ franchise is clearly Mike D’Antoni’s offense. For a team that ranks toward the bottom of the league in possessions and pace, the James Harden-centered offense is one of the most efficient we’ve seen in recent memory, scoring nearly 115 points per 100 possessions. Harden and the Rockets have received criticism for their style, where the ball is stuck in Harden’s hands for a good portion of the game, and more possessions than not end in his controversial and unstoppable step-back jumper. Regardless, Harden has produced one of the greatest scoring seasons in NBA history to lead an outstanding offense.
Biggest Weakness: Rebounding/Interior Defense
While their own offense needs to be at its best, if the Rockets want a shot at beating the Warriors they will need to limit Golden State’s explosive offense, which is no small task. Where the Rockets have struggled the most this year is inside the paint: they currently rank among the bottom three in opponent’s points in the paint and in defensive rebounding percentage. Outside of Clint Capela, the Rockets have no paint presence in their starting lineup -- though a strong defensive presence, Capela cannot do it alone. If Kenneth Faried doesn’t step up on defense, it may not matter how good their offense is.
Team’s X- Factor: Chris Paul
While it will be absolutely essential for Harden to take his regular-season play into the playoffs, Chris Paul’s contribution against the Warriors and the rest of their opponents this postseason will be equally important. Harden is having a historically good offensive season, which means that any opponent’s game plan will start with stopping him. Paul will need to return to his All-NBA level of play to supplement Harden if the Rockets have any hope of making the NBA Finals.
Player to Watch: Danuel House
After losing key contributors Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute this past offseason, wing depth was a concern entering the season. The Rockets desperately needed a “three-and-D” player to go along with P.J. Tucker, and it appears they’ve found that guy in Danuel House. Since being called up from the G-League last month, House has seen 25.6 minutes per game and will be an under-the-radar player to watch for the Rockets when the playoffs begin.
Estimated Playoff Run:
With the Blazers’ win on the final night of the regular season, the Rockets dropped to the 4 seed, meaning they’re matched up with the Jazz for the first round. This also means that they’ll have to play the Warriors one round earlier than previously hoped, and see very little chance that another team will defeat the Warriors for them, setting up one of the best second round matchups ever. It’ll be a tough task, but I’m not sure there’s a team in the league with a better shot of beating the Warriors in a seven-game series than the Rockets; they have the firepower and experience necessary to disrupt the champs. Expect an exciting and hard-fought series, but do not expect the Rockets to take down the Warriors if five previous All-Stars are on the floor for Golden State.