PBT First-Round Playoff Previews: Houston Rockets vs. Dallas Mavericks

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SEASON RECORDS

Rockets: 56-26 (second place in Western Conference)
Mavericks: 50-32 (seventh place in Western Conference)
Houston won the regular season series 3-1.

KEY INJURIES

Rockets: Patrick Beverley (wrist) hopes to return from surgery during this series, but that is far from a lock. Donatas Motiejunas is out for the playoffs (spinal surgery). K.J. McDaniels injured his wrist in the final game of the season, there is speculation it is broken and he will be out for the postseason.

Mavericks: Chandler Parsons is recovering from a knee injury, has been playing one-on-one and could return this series. You can be sure he wants to play his former team.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS

Mavericks: 107.2 points scored per 100 possessions (5th in NBA); 103.7 points allowed per 100 possessions (18th in NBA).
Rockets: 104.2 points scored per 100 possessions (12th in NBA); 100.5 points allowed per 100 possessions (6th in NBA).

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) Can James Harden be an efficient scorer in the playoffs? Harden is an MVP candidate because not only does he put up points — 27.4 points per game, second best in the NBA — but he did it with a true shooting percentage of .605. He shoots 37.5 percent from three; he is gifted at pressuring defenders and drawing fouls, then hitting his free throws. However, that efficiency has gone away come the playoffs the past couple seasons when defenses really focused on him in Houston — his true shooting percentage last season was .519 in the playoffs, below the league average that season. Will that happen again? Dallas did a relatively good job containing him in their meetings this season, the problem for the Mavericks is they couldn’t then slow the other Rockets.

2) Does the Rajon Rondo trade finally start to pay off for Dallas? This trade has not worked out for Dallas, or Rondo, like either side had hoped. When Rondo is on the court, the Mavs defense is marginally better than when he sits, but the offense drops five points per 100 possessions. His lack of shooting has killed the Mavs spacing. Plus, since coming to Dallas Rondo has turned the ball over on 22.6 percent of the possessions he uses — better than one in five trips down the court. That said, “Playoff Rondo” is a thing, he thrives on the bigger stage. The Mavs are going to need that Rondo in this series.

3) Can Dallas keep Houston’s big men off the offensive glass? This quietly could be a key to the series. Dallas grabs 72.2 percent of their defensive rebound opportunities, an unimpressive 29th in the league. Houston, on the other hand, grabs 26.8 percent of their missed shots as an offensive rebound, seventh best in the NBA. It’s not hard to envision how this plays out: Harden barrels down the lane and draws Tyson Chandler and pretty much every other Mavs defender, Harden misses his shot under that pressure but nobody is left to box out Dwight Howard or Terrence Jones, who get the putback dunk. If Dallas can’t keep Houston from getting second chance opportunities this is going to be a very difficult series for them.

PREDICTION

This is the best rivalry in the first round — these teams don’t like each other and don’t hide it. It’s Dwight Howard choosing Houston over Dallas as a free agent and Mark Cuban calling it a mistake in judgment. It’s Chandler Parsons leaving Houston to sign with Dallas and the world finds out on Instagram. It’s Parsons calling downtown Houston “dirty.” It’s Mark Cuban and Daryl Morey taking shots at each other through the media. This is going to be fun.

This was the matchup Dallas most wanted, they match up better against Houston than they did San Antonio or the LA Clippers. Slowing Dirk Nowitzki is a nightmare for everyone and Houston is no exception. Monta Ellis is going to get his (at least in a couple games). And yet, it will not be enough — this is going to be a hard-fought, competitive series, but I’ll take the Rockets in seven.