With the Houston Rockets staring up from the seventh seed in the Western Conference, the elite teams need to take notice of the most dangerous threat at the bottom of the playoff picture.
When you look at the Western Conference playoffs, there are two obvious favorites with the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder looking down on everyone else. Then you've got the Memphis Grizzlies, Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Clippers as middle-dwellers, all capable of putting together a run and making their way to the Western Conference Finals.
Then you have the bottom three.
The Golden State Warriors continue to be a bit of an enigma, vacillating somewhere between a team that resides as a group of hot shooters and microwaves, and a team that is doing its best to be a well-balanced force.
Whomever it may be stumbling their way into the eighth seed will end up falling into one of two camps.
The Utah Jazz are too average to be a big threat to the big guys at the top of the conference, while the Los Angeles Lakers could pose a threat simply because of their star power. Both teams would need things to go right for them to be much of a threat.
That leaves the Houston Rockets, the team that knows exactly who they are and exactly how to execute their game plan.
Should a team with athletic, defensively-sound wings like the Denver Nuggets meet them immediately, it's going to be difficult for their fast-paced, jump-shot happy offense to put together enough points to really do what they want.
However, if they take on a team near the top of the conference with a slightly shallower bench or some older players to defend, things could get interesting.
The Thunder have a bench that doesn't go deeper than seven or eight players once the playoffs come around, and the San Antonio Spurs rely on Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard as their main transition defenders. After those two, they have to hope that Tony Parker and Tim Duncan get out quick enough to help out.
What makes Houston so dangerous is how early on they settle into their roles, and how quickly chemistry forms between their components.
Houston is aware of who is handling the ball in every given situation (hint: it's either James Harden or Jeremy Lin), and where they should be on the floor in relation to the ball.
They've put together a hierarchy that went in place from day one, and grown from it throughout the rest of the season.
With Harden as the obvious ball dominator, they run a series of pick-and-roll plays with him and Omer Asik, as well as a pick-and-pop with Harden (or Lin) Chandler Parsons or whichever stretch-4 may be playing at any given time. The rest of the players set off ball screens, wait for the pass around the perimeter and drive when their defenders overplay the three-pointer.
It's simply complicated.
Sometimes it's easier to understand how a team makes difficult for an opponent when it's actually seen.
Check out Houston's shot distribution chart for the entire season:
There's only two places you need to guard if you're taking in a series against the Rockets: right in the restricted zone, or everywhere else.
Golden State takes a miniscule 37 percent of their shots at the rim, while the Jazz and Lakers each fail to crack the 43-percent barrier.
The Warriors and Jazz are both in the bottom third in the league in shots attempted in the restricted zone, while the Lakers' faster-paced offense hangs out right in the middle of the pack. Houston is second in the league, attempting 30 of their 83 shots from point-blank range.
Once the game moves away, Houston has just one "trendy shot" to take: their center-right three-pointer, from where they attempt 11 percent of their attempts. Otherwise, they shoot right around five percent of their shots from every other three-point location, two percent from every long-to-mid-range jumper and two percent in each close jumper location.
Golden State very obviously shoots more than their fair share from the right side of the three-point line while above the break, and in straight-away jumpers.
This makes Houston the more unpredictable of the four teams, even though it may seem as if they're simply pushing the pace and shooting.
Houston has taken down every team in the NBA except the Miami Heat and Nuggets at least once. Three of their four games against the San Antonio Spurs were incredibly close, while they showed improvement all throughout the season.
What makes the Rockets such an intriguing team near the bottom of the playoff picture is that they're not a team easily dominated, and their style of play is really only given issues by one perfectly built team in the West.
A series against the Nuggets would be the worst case scenario, and it's still not out of the cards. Houston, at 43-34, is just one game out of the sixth spot in the West behind Golden State's 44-33 record.
A sixth seed would put them directly in line to face the Nuggets, which would ultimately lead to their destruction.
However, any other first-round opponent could make for some interesting basketball, as they're liable to get hot with a few shots falling and some cold shooting from their opponents.
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