Lineup: G Russell Westbrook, G James Harden, G Eric Gordon, F Robert Covington, F P.J. Tucker
Head coach: Mike D’Antoni
Why are they a difficult matchup: The Rockets have one thing that no other team in the playoff bracket boasts: Two league MVP’s, still relatively in their primes. Between James Harden and Russell Westbrook, Houston has 48 minutes of elite guard play and a coach who empowers them to be exactly who they are without apology.
It was a struggle for the two to co-exist early on, and understandably so, considering their ball-dominant styles and Westbrook’s severe limitations as a shooter. But around the time the calender flipped to 2020, things started to click for Westbrook in particular. Through the first two months of the season Westbrook shot roughly 42% from the field, while attempting around 5 three pointers per contest. Since the month of December however, Russ has cut those attempts in half and has seen his production and overall efficiency skyrocket.
A big part of unlocking Westbrook has been the shift to 5-out small ball. In traditional Rockets fashion, they’ve taken a novelty idea and turned it into a core philosophy. The deadline deal in involving Clint Capela and Robert Covington was confirmation of that.
What that trade did for Houston is take a good, but limited, center and replaced him with a fifth 3-point shooter and perimeter defender. It’s taken their 3-point launching offense and switch-everything defense and amplified it. Perhaps most importantly though, it’s taken an extra defender out of the paint, enhancing the relentless stylings of Westbrook.
Harden will still be Harden, no doubt. But Westbrook coming along as well as the small ball approach makes this team very dangerous in a 7 game series.
How do the Mavericks matchup: I think Dallas is one of a few teams with the personnel to really combat Houston. The best way to break down Houston is to play their game. Spread the floor with shooters and attack the paint relentlessly. That’s the best way to exploit their lack of rim protection and rebounding.
And the Mavericks can do all that without sacrificing their size and interior presence. That’s why KP would be the swing player in this series, because the Mavericks could still maintain optimal spacing for Luka to attack, all while losing no size or paint protection to help exploit the Rockets weakness.
Offensively, I think the Mavericks would do what they do to most teams: score and do it efficiently. Defensively, however? That’s a much greater challenge. To be frank, the Mavs would be overmatched defensively. They don’t have the perimeter stoppers to make it tough on Harden or Westbrook. It would probably take some clever schemes to slow them down, which we’ve seen Rick Carlisle cook up in the past. The Rockets do have some feast-or-famine shooters in their squad. Perhaps the “anyone-but-Harden” defense could work.
Either way, this would surely be an entertaining matchup.
Key matchup: Doncic vs. Harden
Could this really be any other way? While these two won’t spend a ton of time guarding one another, they’re both the engine of their respective teams. Their level of play would ultimately determine the direction of the series.
Who would come out on top?:
I think Dallas is an excellent matchup for Houston, both with their personnel and schemes. Luka would surely have a field day with their lack of rim protection and KP would dominate against a front line with no size.
However, the Mavericks main guys lack playoff experience. Houston’s lineup has been there and done that. Stuff like that is valuable in these situations. And because of that, I think the Rockets would prevail in a highly-competitive series.
Prediction: Rockets win series 4-3.
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