Harden and the Rockets feel like they can beat anyone. Can they?
But how do these upstart Rockets match up against their Western Conference foes?
Although several games remain to be played, the team looks to be in good shape.
As it stands, Houston trails the Golden State Warriors by one game for sixth in the conference. In the rear view, the Utah Jazz sit 2.5 games behind the Rockets at eighth, with the Los Angeles Lakers three games off the pace in ninth.
But while getting to the postseason seems all but assured, lasting in it is a whole other story.
Through 77 games, Houston is 22-25 against conference opponents and 6-9 against divisional foes. Both stand as the worst mark among the 16 teams currently in playoff position.
Furthermore, although the Rockets boast a league-best 106.2 points per game, their 102.7 points per game allowed is the worst output by any current playoff team and third worst in the league.
Houston, we may have a problem.
But then again, in a conference that has seen three seventh or lower seeds advance past the first round in the last six years, anything can happen.
For the sake of this article, we will be using a playoff seeding as follows:
6. Golden State Warriors
7. Houston Rockets
8. Los Angeles Lakers
There's no love lost between Durant (left) and Harden (right).
Season Head-to-Head: OKC won 2-1
Nov. 28 (120-98 OKC)
Dec. 29 (124-94 OKC)
Feb. 20 (122-119 HOU)
Tale of the Tape
The Rockets struggled tremendously against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the first two meetings. With disappointing play on both ends of the floor, the team deservedly lost the two contests by an average margin of 26 points. Only a 46-point outburst by James Harden in the third meeting prevented the Thunder from sweeping the series.
Over the three matches, Houston posted an offensive rating of 97.2 and a defensive rating of 113.2.
Who To Stop: Kevin Durant
Who did you expect?
Through 77 games, Durant is averaging 28.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.3 blocks over 38.7 minutes per game. He’s also shooting 50.6 percent from the field and 41.2 percent from three-point range.
The guy truly does it all.
In three meetings against the Rockets this year, Durant averaged 26.3 points, 7.1 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocks over 39 minutes per game. He also shot 47.2 percent from the floor and 40 percent from distance. That includes a 37-point performance (13-of-22 shooting) on Nov. 28 during Oklahoma City’s 120-98 win.
If Houston wants to advance, slowing down Durant is the only option.
Since the franchise moved to Oklahoma City, the Thunder have yet to square off with the Rockets in the postseason.
In fact, the last meeting between the two teams was back in 1997 during the second round. Houston beat the then-Seattle SuperSonics 4-3.
However, that would be the only series win for the Rockets.
Oklahoma City has won each of the other five series played between the teams. It also holds a 20-11 overall head-to-head advantage.
While they might not hold the best record in the conference, the Thunder certainly have looked the part of the top team in the conference.
Not only can the team score in bunches—it ranks second in the league with 106 points per game—but Oklahoma City can also shut the opposition down on the defensive end. Opponents have averaged just 96.8 points per game this season.
Sure, Houston would have no problem keeping up with the Thunder offensively. But defensively? Not a chance.
It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to see Durant drop 30 points in every game of this series.
Prediction: OKC in five
Losing Gallinari was a huge blow to the Nuggets.
Season Head-to-Head: DEN won 4-0
Nov. 7 (93-87 DEN)
Jan. 23 (105-95 DEN)
Jan. 30 (118-110 DEN)
April 6 (132-114 DEN)
Tale of the Tape
The Denver Nuggets had their way with the Rockets this season. Healthy or not, it didn’t change the outcome. Denver averaged 112 points per game in the series.
During the four contests, Houston posted an offensive rating of 97.5 and a defensive rating of 108.4.
Who To Stop: Ty Lawson
Proving that last season was no fluke, Lawson has picked up where he left off.
Through 69 games this season, he’s averaging 16.7 points, 6.9 assists, 2.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals over 34.8 minutes per game. He’s also shooting 45.6 percent from the field and 36.8 percent from beyond the arc.
Time and time again, Lawson has single-handedly willed the Nuggets to victory.
In three games against the Rockets, the 25-year-old averaged 19.3 points, 6.3 assists, 2.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals over 35 minutes per game. He also shot 44.7 percent from the floor and 54.5 percent from three-point range.
When Lawson goes, Denver goes.
That makes stopping him all the more important for Houston.
The Nuggets and Rockets have met just once in the playoffs. That was back during the second round of the 1986 postseason.
In a hard-fought series, Houston prevailed 4-2 in six games.
With the way Denver steamrolled through the Rockets during the season, it’s hard to imagine it playing out any different during the playoffs.
However, a lot can change in a matter of weeks.
Now, the Nuggets will be without Danilo Gallinari (torn ACL) for the remainder of the season. Not to mention, the team’s been without Lawson (heel) for seven of its last eight games.
Sure, Denver didn’t seem to miss a beat without the duo during its 132-114 victory over Houston on April 6. But don’t expect that to hold true throughout an entire series.
However, with Lawson expected back before the start of the postseason, it will be enough to carry the Nuggets through.
Prediction: DEN in six
Can Houston's porous defense slow down Curry?
Season Head-to-Head: HOU won 3-1
Feb. 5 (140-109 HOU)
Feb. 12 (116-107 HOU)
March 8 (94-88 HOU)
March 17 (108-78 GS)
Tale of the Tape
The Rockets put their offensive prowess on full display during their 140-109 win over the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 5. The team added two more victories to capture the season series over the Warriors for the sixth straight season.
Over the four meetings, Houston posted an offensive rating of 106.6 and a defensive rating of 101.8.
Who To Stop: Stephen Curry
With every passing game, Curry just seems to get better.
Through 73 games, he’s averaging 22.5 points, 6.9 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.6 steals over 38.3 minutes per game. Curry has also shot 44.8 percent from the field and 45.2 percent from outside.
No matter the team, no matter the defense; if the 25-year-old wants to score, he’ll score.
Over four meetings against the Rockets, Curry has averaged 21.8 points, 8.5 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.1 steals over 37.5 minutes per game. He also shot 44.6 percent from the floor and 37.9 percent from beyond the arc.
But what those numbers won’t show you is that Houston accomplished something that nobody else in the NBA has been able to do: Stop Curry.
During the Feb. 5 meeting between the two teams, the Rockets held Curry to just seven points on 3-of-12 shooting (1-of-5 from three-point range).
If Houston can rediscover that same game plan, the team should be just fine.
The two teams have never met in the playoffs.
Minus one hiccup, the Rockets seem to have Golden State’s number this year. In fact, Houston has won 17 of the last 20 in the series dating back to 2007.
All season long, the Warriors have allowed opponents to rack up the points. The team allows an average of 100.1 points per game—No. 19 in the league.
This leaves Golden State’s defense prone to be picked apart by a high-octane offense such as the Rockets.
With a resurgent Jeremy Lin starting to rack up the points again, paired with James Harden’s 25.8 points per game, look for Houston’s success over the Warriors to continue.
Prediction: HOU in five
The Spurs have hounded the Rockets this season.
Season Head-to-Head: SA won 3-1
Dec. 7 (114-92 SA)
Dec. 10 (134-126 SA)
Dec. 28 (122-116 SA)
March 24 (96-95 HOU)
Tale of the Tape
If it weren’t for a James Harden jumper with less than five seconds remaining, the San Antonio Spurs would have completed the sweep of the Rockets this season. Instead, they’ll have to settle for three out of four.
However, that was more than enough to put the Spurs’ dominance over Houston on display. San Antonio averaged 116.5 points per game over the four games.
On the other hand, the Rockets posted an offensive rating of 100.5 and a defensive rating of 109.9.
Who To Stop: Tony Parker
Every year, the Spurs seem to be right in the thick of things.
A large part of that is the consistently great play of Parker.
Through 63 games this season, he’s averaging 20.6 points, 7.5 assists and 3.1 rebounds over 33.1 minutes per game. Parker is also shooting 52.6 percent from the field and 35.3 percent from three-point range.
The 30-year-old is easily having his best season since 2009, if not in his entire 11-year career.
In four meetings against Houston, Parker averaged 24.5 points, 9.1 assists and 5.5 rebounds over 35.3 minutes per game. He also shot 57.6 percent from the floor. That includes a triple-double (27 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists) during San Antonio’s 134-126 win on Dec. 12.
Parker opens things up for all the other players on the court. If the Rockets can shut him down, they’ll shut down the Spurs.
Houston and San Antonio have met three times in the postseason, with the Rockets winning each time.
The last meeting between the two teams was during the 1995 conference final. The Rockets won the series 4-2.
Houston also holds an all-time head-to-head record of 10-6 in the playoffs against the Spurs.
The Rockets may have avoided the sweep during the regular season, but they might not be as lucky in the postseason.
San Antonio generally turns it up a notch come playoff time. Don’t expect this season to be any different.
However, injuries to both Manu Ginobili (hamstring) and Tony Parker (neck/ankle) could put a damper on such plans. Fortunately, the Spurs have the luxury of being able to rest key players before the postseason.
Houston will surely keep up with its in-state rivals. But when it comes down to it, San Antonio’s mix of experience and skill will prove to be too much to overcome.
Prediction: SA in five
Griffin has Los Angeles soaring this year.
Season Head-to-Head: LAC won 2-1
Jan. 15 (117-109 LAC)
Feb. 13 (106-96 LAC)
March 30 (98-81 HOU)
Tale of the Tape
The three games played this season between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Rockets hardly offered us a conclusion. The Clippers won two generally close games by a combined margin of 18 points, while Houston won easily courtesy of a 17-point blowout.
Furthermore, over the three meetings, the Rockets posted an offensive rating of 101.5 and a defensive rating of 103.7.
It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to say that these two teams are pretty evenly matched.
Who To Stop: Chris Paul
Paul has had quite a year.
Through 65 games, he’s averaging 17 points, 9.6 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 2.4 steals over 33.4 minutes per game. Paul has also shot 48.1 percent from the field and 33.2 percent from downtown.
Whatever Los Angeles needs, the 27-year-old has been right there to provide it.
In two games against the Rockets, Paul averaged 14.5 points, 8.5 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals over 31.5 minutes per game. He also shot 43.5 percent from the field and 42.9 percent from beyond the arc.
Although Paul still got his numbers, Houston limited his effectiveness quite a bit. That was evident during the Feb. 13 matchup between the two teams, when Paul was held to just 10 points on 3-of-8 shooting.
If the Rockets can capitalize on that during a potential playoff matchup, then they can ensure that they’ll be in the series for the long haul.
Houston has met the Clippers in the postseason just once. That was back during the first round of the 1993 playoffs.
The Rockets won the series 3-2.
Believe it or not, Houston and Los Angeles match up really well against each other. In fact, this is a series that the Rockets could actually squeak out.
However, that requires that the team is clicking on all cylinders.
Offense alone doesn’t win championships. If Houston wants to extend its season, the team will have to play the kind of defense it did against the Clippers on March 30—Los Angeles was held to 81 points on 39.7 percent shooting.
The Rockets will also have to contain Paul if they have any thought of pulling off the upset.
That would be the key to this series.
Prediction: LAC in seven
Bayless and the Grizz are looking for more.
Season Head-to-Head: MEM leads 2-1
Nov. 9 (93-85 MEM)
Dec. 22 (121-96 HOU)
March 29 (103-94 MEM)
April 12 (8 p.m. ET)
Tale of the Tape
Houston split its first two matchups with the Memphis Grizzlies. The first game epitomized the type of basketball the Grizzlies have played this season, while the second matchup was right up the Rockets’ alley. The third match was a little bit of both.
How will the fourth and final installment on April 12 go down?
Over the three contests, Houston posted an offensive rating of 105.5 and a defensive rating of 104.1.
Who To Stop: Zach Randolph
The minute Rudy Gay left Memphis, Randolph assumed full leadership of the team.
Through 71 games, he’s averaging 15.4 points and 11.2 rebounds over 34.7 minutes per game. Randolph is also shooting 46.2 percent from the field.
With his success scoring down low, paired with his dominance on the glass, the 31-year-old is truly a force inside the paint.
In three meetings against the Rockets, Randolph averaged 15.3 points, 12 rebounds and 1.3 blocks over 33.7 minutes per game. He also shot 48.5 percent from the floor. That includes a 21-point, 12-rebound performance during the Grizzlies’ 103-94 win on March 29.
Randolph has displayed the ability to take over a game in the past. It’s imperative that Houston prevents him from doing so again.
The two teams have never met in the playoffs.
Memphis loves to take the game inside.
Randolph and Marc Gasol combine for 29.7 points per game. They’re a large reason why the Grizzlies rank ninth in the league in points in the paint per game with 43.2.
Who ranks second on that list? The Rockets.
Sometimes, you’ve got to fight fire with fire. In this case, if Memphis is attacking the paint, Houston has to attack it harder.
In the three previous matchups, the Rockets have been pretty successful. They’ve averaged 100 points per game—the Grizzlies lead the league in allowing just 89.7 points per game.
If Houston keeps it up while containing Memphis’ big men down low, this series could be in its grasp.
Prediction: HOU in six
Is it ever smart to bet against Kobe?
Season Head-to-Head: HOU leads 2-1
Nov. 18 (119-108 LA)
Dec. 4 (107-105 HOU)
Jan. 8 (125-112 HOU)
April 17 (10:30 p.m. ET)
Tale of the Tape
There’s a reason the Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers are only separated by three games.
This season, the two teams have played three times. Each team has a double-digit victory to its name, sandwiching a two-point Houston win.
The fourth showdown between the two takes place on the final day of the regular season on April 17 in Los Angeles. It could also be the game that decides whether the Lakers are playoff-bound or not.
During the three games, the Rockets have posted an offensive rating of 109.1 and a defensive rating of 109.4.
Who To Stop: Kobe Bryant
There’s not a more feared playoff competitor in the league right now than Bryant.
Through 75 games, he’s averaging 27 points, 6.1 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 1.3 steals over 38.4 minutes per game. Bryant has also shot 46.2 percent from the field and 32.3 percent from downtown.
Los Angeles could be trailing by 20 points in the fourth quarter, but as long as Bryant is on the floor, the game is still winnable. That’s what he brings to a team.
In the three meetings with Houston, Bryant averaged 27 points, 7.3 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 2.7 steals over 37.3 minutes per game. He also shot 43.7 percent from the floor. That includes a triple-double (22 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists) during a 119-108 Lakers win on Nov. 18 and a 39-point performance during the Rockets 107-105 victory on Dec. 4.
Stopping Bryant is nearly impossible. The best any team can attempt to do is to try and slow him down.
Houston and Los Angeles have met in the postseason a total of eight times. The Lakers have won five of those series.
The last meeting between the two teams was during the second round of the 2009 playoffs.
Los Angeles advanced in seven.
When they’re on, the Lakers are one of the toughest teams to beat.
Unfortunately, injuries have plagued the team throughout the season. Bryant (ankle), Steve Nash (hamstring/hip), Pau Gasol (foot) and Metta World Peace (knee) have all missed time with nagging injuries. World Peace even underwent surgery.
Although Dwight Howard finally appears to be healthy, everyone else is not.
That could end up being the Rockets' biggest advantage in the series.
Prediction: HOU in six
All stats used in this article are courtesy of NBA.com's Media Central