With the NBA playoffs beginning this weekend, the Rockets find themselves with home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, a favorable matchup with a team they should handle in Round 1 and an opportunity to make some waves in the brutal Western Conference.
They won 54 games, played very well late in the year until they had three starters go out with injuries and have two of the best players in the game at their positions in James Harden and Dwight Howard.
At times they have looked like world-beaters, at others they have struggled with turnovers and shoddy defense. But that's an 82-game schedule.
So what will it take to win a playoff series? Two and reach the Western Conference Finals? In truth, the Rockets are probably a player away from that second step. The Spurs will be waiting in the second round, and despite the Rockets going 4-0 in the regular season against San Antonio, it means nothing come playoff time. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich focuses on getting ready for the postseason. He has the most rested starters in the league, a deep and talented bench and home-court advantage. The Spurs choked away Game 6 last year or they would be working on back to back titles.
But that's a story for round 2. First up is Portland, with Game 1 on Sunday night. The Rockets went 3-1 against the Blazers in the regular season, and appear to have a favorable matchup. But the Blazers also won 54 games and played better down the stretch. So what will it take for Houston to advance?
1) Don't turn the ball over. This has been a recurring theme all year. When they protect the basketball, they can beat anyone. But they have a habit of sloppy passes that lead to points the other way. Turnovers happen, but the silly ones will lead to losses. It's not just the point guards; James Harden has had bad stretches as well. They were better with the basketball later in the season when everyone was healthy and that will need to continue.
2) Health. Patrick Beverly, Dwight Howard and Terrance Jones all missed time down the stretch. That's three of the five starters. While Omar Asik is a solid backup to Howard, the drop-off behind Beverly and Jones is substantial. The good news is all three appeared healthy at the end of the year and should be ready to go. But if any of the three are re-injured, the series could turn in a hurry.
3) Hang in there against the stars. Beverly needs to harass point guard Damian Lillard, something he is very good at doing. Beverly isn't near the player Lillard is, but he plays hard-nosed (some would call it dirty) defense and can easily frustrate opponents. If Beverly stays healthy, he can make life difficult for Lillard. If the Rockets have to go with Jeremy Lin on Lillard at some point, it could get ugly fast. As good as Jones as been at power forward, LaMarcus Aldridge has been nearly unstoppable. The Rockets have to get Jones help and keep Aldridge off the offensive boards. Those two will do damage throughout the series, and will win a couple games for the Blazers. But making them work hard will pay dividends over the course of the series.
4) Win the other battles. The Rockets are better at the other three positions with Harden, Howard and Chandler Parsons. Asik is solid off the bench, but the Blazers might be better there. So the stars have to come to play. If the Rockets are to advance, Harden and Howard need to come up big. They have done it all year against the Blazers; Harden averaged 30.1 points against Portland, while Howard was good for 25.5 and 13.5 rebounds. That trend will need to continue. Howard will also have to hit free throws, which is always an adventure.
5) Take nothing for granted. The Rockets may have been 3-1 in the regular season against Portland, but the playoffs will be a more physical, high-intensity, between-game-adjustment type of basketball. The Rockets should have an advantage -- the experience from last year against Oklahoma City plus Howard's playoff experience -- but they should not lose sight of the fact the Blazers posted the same record they did in the tough Western Conference and finished stronger than the Rockets. The Rockets were 4th in offense, 12th in defense. The Blazers were 5th and 16th, respectively. It's not like this is a 1-8 matchup with a heavy favorite; the Blazers could easily win this series.
One big key for the Rockets will be how coach Kevin McHale responds during the series. He has had troubles with late game strategies in the past, and the defense did not look the same once Kelvin Sampson left to go to the University of Houston. McHale would be overmatched in series against Popovich or Doc Rivers. He should be able to hold his own against Terry Stotts.
The reality is the Rockets are probably a year and another player away from being able to win the West, or even reach the conference finals. But they should get out of Round 1 for just the second time since 1997 and first since 2009.
Prediction: Rockets in 6.