Analyzing Potential Playoff Matchups For The Houston Rockets

NBA: Miami Heat at Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets will be playing playoff basketball this season. Here’s a look at the teams that would present favorable matchups and the teams that pose a threat in the 2017 NBA Playoffs.

The Houston Rockets sit comfortably in the third seed in the Western Conference playoff picture with a record of 40-18. Although there are still over two months of the regular season to be played, the playoff picture is shaping up in the Western Conference.

The Rockets have also seen enough of the teams in the playoff picture, and while regular season basketball can differ from playoff basketball, those results do shed light on which teams Houston struggles with and which teams they can handle comfortably.

Therefore, I decided to analyze which teams the Rockets would prefer to face in the first round and which teams would give them serious trouble.

There are various reasons why certain teams pose matchup problems, from style of play and personnel to coaching and home-court advantage. When deciding which teams would present a favorable matchup versus which teams are potential threats, it’s also important to consider recent games between the two teams and possible trends that have developed over the past couple of seasons.

Of course, things could change if any of the teams make trades between now and the trade deadline, especially the Rockets, so that is something to always keep in mind.

Without further ado, here are the two teams that the Rockets should hope to play in the first round of the 2017 NBA playoffs.

Houston Rockets

Dec 2, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Nuggets guard Will Barton (5) guards Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) in the second quarter at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Denver Nuggets

Now this matchup in the first round is extremely unlikely, mainly due to the fact that while the Denver Nuggets are currently the eighth seed, they sit 6.5 games behind the Oklahoma City Thunder for the seventh seed and eight games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the sixth seed.

However, by some strange chain of events (injuries, blockbuster trades, etc.) it could be possible for the Nuggets to be slotted against Houston in the first round. Advantage, Rockets.

The Nuggets play a very similar style to the Rockets, as they use their offense to outscore opponents. The Nuggets are currently eighth in the league offensively, but dead last defensively. The Nuggets also prioritize shooting threes, as they are 10th in three-pointers attempted per game. Interestingly enough, the Nuggets actually shoot better (37 percent) on threes than the Rockets do (36.4 percent). However, the Rockets take nearly 12 more threes per game on average than the Nuggets do.

In their first (and only so far) matchup, the Rockets blew out the Nuggets in Denver 128-110 in Denver. You will remember that the Rockets were coming off a double overtime victory over the Golden State Warriors the night before. The Rockets shot 45.9 percent on threes and put the game away after three quarters.

However, there have been several changes to the Nuggets since that game in early December. First (and most importantly), the reins have been handed to Nikola Jokic as their starting center. And boy has he not disappointed. So far in February, the Serbian big man is averaging 20.1 points, 11.1 and 6.3 assists per game on 52.8 percent shooting from the field, including 50 percent on three-pointers.

Second, the Nuggets have since traded for Mason Plumlee, who plays a very similar style to Jokic at the center position. Both are playmaking centers who could cause trouble for the Rockets with their ability to pass to cutters at the rim.

The two teams will face off in a home-and-home in March, but all signs are pointing to what would be a comfortable Rockets victory in a seven-game series, due to defensive struggles and lack of playoff experience for the Nuggets.

Houston Rockets

Jan 5, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) and Houston Rockets guard Patrick Beverley (2) at Toyota Center. Houston Rockets won 118 to 116 .Mandatory Credit: Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma City Thunder

The OKC Thunder have been a familiar opponent for the Rockets so far this season, as the teams have played three times, with the Rockets ahead 2-1 in the regular season series. Interestingly enough, all three games have been decided by three points or less.

James Harden has struggled scoring against the Thunder this season as he has scored 26 points or less in each game while shooting less than 38 percent in every game. Harden also had 20 turnovers in the three games, highlighting the effectiveness of the Thunder defense.

This would by no means be an easy series. Russell Westbrook is singlehandedly capable of winning games on his own, and his supporting cast has continued to improve and get more comfortable as the season has gone on.

What makes the Thunder easier to defend is their lack of shooting. For the season the Thunder are 29th in the league in three-point percentage at 32.1 percent. It’s clear the Thunder rely on their good defense to win games rather than outscore opponents like the Rockets do.

This season the Thunder are 10th in the league defensively and 21st in the league offensively. Interestingly enough, their net rating of -1.0 is good for only 16th in the league.

Of course we know the fireworks that could come from such a series. There is certainly no love lost between Patrick Beverley and Westbrook, and their battles have been very entertaining this season.

Of course, the wider narrative between these two teams is the battle of the MVP candidates, with James Harden and Russell Westbrook continuing to find ways to stick out among the pack. If the two teams were to meet in the first round, the media would swallow that narrative whole.

In the end, the Rockets seem to have figured out a semi-capable plan of defeating the Thunder: let Russell Westbrook do his thing at the expense of his teammates. In the three games between the teams this season, Westbrook has taken 20, 25 and 34 shots. Also, Westbrook has had less assists in each game than he averages per game for the season.

If the Rockets are healthy and hitting their shots, they should be able to defeat the Thunder in a six-game series should the two teams meet in the first round of the playoffs.

Houston Rockets

Jan 21, 2017; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) shoots over Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) during the first half at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Memphis Grizzlies

The two teams that would pose threats to the Rockets in the first round of the playoffs are (unsurprisingly) teams that play elite defense. Let’s start with the Memphis Grizzlies, who have been a real pain for the Rockets to deal with this season.

The Grizzlies are 2-1 on the season against the Rockets, using a familiar recipe of tough defense and good play in crunch time to win. The Grizzlies have posed problems for the Rockets in past seasons as well (granted, they pose a lot of problems for most teams in the league).

Everyone knows the Grizzlies’ mantra for the past couple of years: “Grit-N-Grind.” That is certainly how Memphis is winning games this season. The Grizzlies are fourth in the league defensively for the season and 20th offensively. Interestingly enough, the Grizzlies only have a net rating of +1.4, which is quite low for a team 10 games over .500.

The Grizzlies have a frontcourt that can pose problems for the Rockets. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph can take advantages of the Rockets’ weak defensive frontcourt (particularly Ryan Anderson and Sam Dekker). Memphis also has a myriad of good perimeter defenders to throw at James Harden, from Mike Conley to Tony Allen.

If the Rockets are shooting well from beyond the arc, this is a series that could last five games. However, a couple of cold shooting stretches and this series could certainly go seven games, something the Rockets certainly want to avoid in the first round.

Houston Rockets

Nov 29, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Houston Rockets guard Eric Gordon (10) dribbles the ball away from Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward (20) during the third quarter at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Utah Jazz win 120-101. Mandatory Credit: Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Utah Jazz

The Utah Jazz are an elite team. Their record may not be incredibly impressive, but it’s important to note the amount of injuries they have dealt with, from George Hill to Derrick Favors missing nearly half of the season so far.

The Jazz are a better and more balanced version of the Grizzlies. Utah is third in the league defensively, but also 12th in offense. In fact, their net rating of +5.6 is good for fourth in the league, one spot behind the Rockets. That’s pretty elite.

So far this season, the teams are tied 1-1 in the season series, with the two set to play one more time in March. Both victories were comfortable for the home team, which isn’t surprising considering both teams are very good at home.

The biggest challenge the Jazz pose is their tough, physical defense. Utah has good defenders on the wing that are supported by a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Rudy Gobert. The Jazz also have good shooting on the roster, as they are actually tied with the Rockets in three-point percentage for the season (36.4 percent).

When healthy, the Jazz are unequivocally better than the Grizzlies. They are a balanced team, nearly top 10 in both offense and defense. Utah can throw physical defenders at you while using a balanced scoring attack on offense to take you out of games.

This is a series that would almost certainly go seven games, and one that home-court advantage would play a big role in. It’s clear that teams that play tough, physical defense pose the biggest threats to the Rockets in the playoffs.

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