After a 65-17 regular season campaign, the best record in the NBA and the best record in Rockets franchise history, the bar is set as high as it has ever been for Harden, Paul, and D’Antoni.
Game one of the 2018 NBA Playoffs for the Houston Rockets, a 104-101 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, there are three things that I will be watching for specifically.
With that being said, let’s dive into what I am looking forward to from this Rockets team in round.
(There will be a more series-wide match-up posting in the next day or so, this post is more Houston-oriented).
Who will be the team’s x-factor?
The assembled roster by Daryl Morey, Rockets, is seemingly more middle heavy than top heavy.
This team has a embarrassment of riches from their supplemental assets in Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah A Moute (out with a shoulder dislocation), and PJ Tucker.
Either of the aforementioned players could be viably deemed the teams x-factor for the postseason. This is a luxury only a few teams can claim they possess.
In that, I am going to choose Clint Capela as my x-factor for the Rockets.
Not only has his growth been vital, but his role has role on the team and impact on the game has grown exponentially from game one of the season to game one of the playoffs.
Clint, initially counted on to be a presence on the glass and in rim protection, has become a two way menace.
Not only has his activity on the glass increased, but he is making plays out of the pick and roll as a secondary playmaker, finishing well around the basket, making his free throws, defending successfully in the switching defense deployed, playing without fouling, and running the floor.
The team is 2.9 points better when he is on the court defensively, and as one of the three anchors on the team, he will need to continue this effort moving forward for the team to reach the ultimate goal.
Of the six line-ups to log at least 100 minutes together this season, all but one posts a defensive rating of less than 104.4, which is about as good as can be for the pace the Rockets play at.
Which line-up’s will be deployed by D’Antoni? (any surprises?!)
Throughout the season, head coach Mike D’Antoni was able to play nine and, sometimes, ten man rotations.
This is a stark contrast to the principles he is known for regarding how many players he typically plays per game.
Mike is known as the catalyst for the floor spacing, three point shooting era that we are currently in now. He is also the catalyst for the “find your best eight and make a run” movement that, for the most part, almost all teams implement in high stakes games.
For the Rockets this year, Mike should go with a 9 man rotation when fully healthy.
One of my favorites, which became the starting line up a little after the All-Star Break, is Paul-Harden-Ariza-Tucker-Capela. This will undoubtedly log the most minutes of any line up used. Matches up well regardless of the opponent, allows for almost ultimate switchability, and is D’Antoni’s go to line up with good reasoning.
In the regular season this line-up was the most featured line-up, logging 267 minutes.
The net rating was only 2.9 but given the sample size and usage, this is extremely reliable.
When CP3 decided to go to Houston, my first thought was whether or not Harden could play small forward at 6’5. I was well aware of how strong he is, and how he can be an average defender when he puts his mind to it. This was all with the idea of this guard trio on court together.
Line-ups with this trio featured was a pipe dream scenario of mine, and I never thought Mike D’Antoni would actually use it, but it turns out he likes what he saw with all three on the court at once.
The trio logged 148 minutes of court time together, and had a sky-high offensive rating as expected at 134.7, and a net rating of 28.9.
In other words, this line-up, while not deployable for long stints, gets the job done offensively while holding up just fine defensively.
Lastly, the “Tuck Wagon” line up. This line up, while used sparingly to match-up with Golden State’s “Death Line-Up” or to combat the height of Demarcus Cousins or Anthony Davis, will be the wildcard in D’Antoni’s back pocket.
I do not think it will work versus Minnesota, but will definitely be a weapon to use in spurts moving forward.
Will the regular season fun translate?
The Rockets, while enjoying the best regular season in franchise history, were sure to have fun in the process.
This noticeable enjoyment trickled from the top between Harden and Paul being each others biggest cheerleaders, to one of the last acquisitions made in Gerald Green.
Even more, when teams typically lock in and have a heightened attention to detail in high stakes games, the Rockets could be seen smiling and enjoying the moment.
This is all a testament to the chemistry and togetherness this roster has been developing since the summer.
The greatest test of all is ahead of them in these playoffs.
Will they continue to have fun with this journey? The chemistry and togetherness are promised to be tested in the coming months with high stakes scenarios coming left and right, can they continue to smile and keep it fun?
Success over and over will be sure to see it continue. But if they come up short one time, how will they respond?
If all that we saw in the regular season holds true, this team will work their way through it and reach their ultimate goal.
Let’s see how it unfolds. Enjoy the 2018 NBA Playoffs!
All stats mentioned come directly from http://www.basketball-reference.com, http://www.stats.nba.com, or http://www.nbamath.com unless otherwise attributed.