The Houston Rockets have guaranteed themselves a spot in the Western Conference playoffs, and no team wants to face this upcoming group of young, talented players.
The Rockets have the sixth best offensive efficiency in the entire league (per Hollinger's Team Stats) and play at the fastest pace. Their 17th best defensive efficiency is something that's still a work in progress, but there's no question that they have a chance to upset one of the top-seeded teams in the conference.
This slideshow will break down the advantages that the Rockets have in each particular matchup, and how those advantages gives them a chance to win a playoff series.
Advantage: Guard penetration
The Thunder team defense has been admirable for the entire season, but they still give up over 40 points per night in the paint.
Although there are much worse defensive teams than the Thunder, they sit at 12th in the league in opponent's points in the paint per game (per Team Rankings).
Jeremy Lin and James Harden are two catalysts who could take advantage of the Thunder by driving into the lanes, drawing fouls or dishing to the open man. Russell Westbrook could do the same for the Thunder and is more explosive than either Harden or Lin, but the Rockets' guard tandem could provide serious problems for the Thunder defense.
Additionally, the Rockets as a team averages the third highest points in the paint per game, putting up 46 points per contest from that area alone. They will need to exploit every advantage they have in order to have a chance at overthrowing the defending Western Conference champions, and this is just a start.
Advantage: Points in transition
The San Antonio Spurs still have one of the best defenses in the league, but they're just 25th in the league in opponent's fast-break points per game. They allow opposing teams to score an average of 14.2 points in transition per contest.
On the other hand, the Rockets average 18.4 fast-break points per game, which is good for the second best in the league. They will need to use their young legs to outrun the Spurs up and down the court to have a shot at winning.
The Rockets have the youngest average roster age in the league, so they need to take full advantage of their relentless energy and tireless legs.
Of course, the Spurs have some capable young athletes in Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, who both see extended minutes, but the rest of the starters cannot keep up with the Rockets in a full-court game. The Rockets should look to run after every rebound, because that's the only efficient way they would be able to put up points on the board.
Advantage: The three ball
The Rockets are first in the league in three-point field-goal attempts, second in three-point field goal makes and ninth in three-point field-goal percentage.
On the opposite side of the mirror, the Denver Nuggets are 29th in the league in both opponent's three-point field-goal makes and three-point field-goal attempts per game. They're also 20th in opponent's three-point percentage.
In other words—they're bad at defending the three ball.
The Nuggets' play style is similar to the Rockets, as they rely on a lot of transition and points in the paint to score the majority of the points. However, they're nowhere near as lethal as the Rockets in terms of shooting from beyond the arc.
With teams slowly realizing that the three-point shot is one of the most efficient shots in the game, the Rockets have already exploited that notion. If the Rockets can find easy perimeter shots in this series, they have a chance to knock out one of the scariest teams in the conference.
Advantage: Athleticism on the wings
To be frank, there isn't much that the Rockets could exploit against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince are still great perimeter defenders, despite showing signs of age in recent times.
However, the Rockets' younger, athletic wing players like Harden and Chandler Parsons gives the team some hope if they were to compete in a seven-game series against the Grizzlies.
The loss of Rudy Gay in the middle of the season hurt more than what the stat sheet said. Gay was the athletic forward that they relied upon to defend opposing small forwards, which is the most talented position in the league today.
The repeated drives and kickouts of the Rockets' young wing players would certainly wear down the 33-year-old Prince.
Advantage: James Harden
It's quite simple.
The Los Angeles Clippers would have a difficult time trying to defend Harden in a half-court set. Harden has a mismatch every time he steps on the floor, and there's nobody on the Clippers who matches up well against him.
The funny thing is, Harden only played one game against the Clippers this season. It resulted in a loss, but that was near the beginning of the season, where the Rockets were still tinkering around with their roster.
Harden will be healthy coming into the playoffs, and the stage is set for him to do whatever he wishes. Every other positional matchup against the Clippers is in their favor, so Harden must carry the Rockets even further if they want to overcome the Clippers.