Ranking Potential 1st-Round Opponents for Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets’ solid play throughout this season has put them in a great position approaching the playoffs. Despite the recent surge by the Los Angeles Lakers, the Rockets have continued to play well and still sit in the seventh seed in the West.
Realistically, Houston will rise no higher than sixth place in the West, ensuring a tough first-round matchup under any circumstances. However, there is still plenty of room for change in the competitive Western Conference, and the Rockets could potentially square off against any of the West’s top five teams, some more desirable than others.
Most Desirable: Memphis Grizzlies
Here’s an idea: the league’s top offense squares off against its best defensive team. Sound intriguing? It certainly should, at least for Rockets fans.
Houston has played the Memphis Grizzlies just twice so far this season, but with promising results. While the first game ended in a fairly close loss, the second meeting ended with a blowout win for the Rockets by an impressive 25 points.
Despite their outstanding defense, the Grizzlies are certainly beatable, even more so now that they have traded away their primary perimeter scorer, Rudy Gay. Ultimately, this matchup should come down to whichever team can more effectively play to its strengths.
Acceptable: Denver Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets took down the Rockets three times already this season, and will have another opportunity to do so in April.
Denver plays a similar up-tempo style to the Rockets, but seem to do it so much more effectively. While Houston scores more, Denver distributes its points more evenly and plays slightly better defense. The Nuggets also have superior depth and playoff experience along with a killer home-court advantage, meaning they’re sure to have the upper hand in any playoff meeting.
However, despite the losses this season, Denver might actually be one of the more desirable opponents for the Rockets simply because of the similar style of play. The Nuggets will allow James Harden and Co. to get their points, which lends this matchup a certain degree of unpredictability.
If the Rockets got hot, this matchup could get very interesting very fast, especially with the best player on the court (Harden) rocking a red jersey.
I'd Rather Not: Los Angeles Clippers
The Rockets have played the L.A. Clippers just twice so far this season and lost on both occasions. However, both games were close enough to suggest that this series would be a competitive matchup.
The primary danger with the Clippers is their remarkable depth. Coach Vinny Del Negro gives his bench players huge minutes, and they deliver on that opportunity, frequently crushing opposing second units while allowing the starters to rest.
Houston will have enough trouble hanging with the Chris Paul-led starting lineup, and they simply don’t have the depth to keep up with L.A.’s dangerous rotation.
While the Clippers aren’t the least desirable opponent for the Rockets, they certainly shouldn’t be underestimated.
Please, No: Oklahoma City Thunder
Surprisingly, the Oklahoma City Thunder are one of just two teams on this list that the Rockets have actually defeated this season.
After two blowout losses to the Thunder early in the season, Houston rallied to take a close win in a third meeting behind James Harden's career-high 46 points.
Sure, it took a superhuman effort from Harden to do it, but at least Houston has showed the Beard’s former team that it can be a serious threat.
It would essentially take a miracle for the Rockets to take down last season’s Western Conference champion, but as long as Harden is hitting shots, Houston should at least have a fighting chance.
Least Desirable: San Antonio Spurs
Houston lost all three of its matchups with the San Antonio Spurs thus far this season, and has only one more chance to defeat the club before the postseason.
San Antonio averaged over 123 points in those contests, providing an illuminating example of the Rockets’ substantial defensive problems. Fortunately, each contest ended with a progressively closer score, offering hope that this team could at least hang with the Spurs on a good night.
Realistically, Houston’s sole sliver of hope in a matchup with San Antonio would rely upon the health of Tony Parker. Parker recently went down with an ankle injury that should sideline him for at least a few weeks, and any further aggravation of that injury could signal bad news for Houston’s Texan neighbor.
However, the Spurs are so deep and efficient that even the loss of their leading scorer doesn’t seem to have deterred them, as shown by recent wins over Chicago and Oklahoma City. San Antonio is simply too solid to fall to Houston in a seven-game series, and the Rockets should be highly motivated to stay out of the eighth seed for this reason.