The Houston Rockets are pretty much playing with house money at this point. Not only are they in the postseason after a three-year hiatus, they have the nucleus of a team that should be a Western Conference contender for several years to come.
But Rocket fans who are hoping for a deep playoff run this season have plenty of reason to be concerned. Houston can be exciting one night and baffling the next, and that type of inconsistency doesn't typically lead to good things in the postseason.
Furthermore, a team that likes to run up and down the court—the Rockets lead the league in pace at 96.2 possessions per game—will be severely reined in once the NBA's version of the Sweet 16 kicks off.
Playoff basketball is a much different beast than an 82-game season, and a Houston team that was the darling of the blogosphere earlier in the year will find their work cut out for them over the next couple of weeks.
Houston is one of the most prolific offensive teams in the league, but their scoring output has been erratic in recent weeks.
Over the past month, the Rockets have failed to break the century mark in scoring on six different occasions. Ironically, each of these games came against playoff teams—not a good sign as Houston prepares for its first postseason berth in four seasons.
Unless the Rockets offense becomes markedly more conservative over the next week, they'll have to deal with these ups-and-downs in a difficult opening round matchup. And as we've seen all year, if Houston doesn't score, they typically don't win: The Rockets are averaging 111.5 points per game in victories compared to just 99.4 points per game in their losses.
There's nothing inherently wrong with shooting threes, especially when a team has converted nearly 37 percent of them as the Rockets have done this season. The problem is that the Houston offense is overly reliant on the long-distance shot: 36 percent of the Rockets' field goal attempts this season have come from beyond the arc.
When the time comes and the shots aren't falling, Houston will need to find another way to put up points. And aside from James Harden, the team doesn't have another consistent offensive threat who can get to the line on a regular basis.
Not only does Houston have a losing record within the Western Conference (24-27), but they're just 16-24 on the road against conference opponents this season. Their struggles away from the Toyota Center don't bode well for the future—they'll have to capture at least one road victory in order to win their first-round series.
The Rockets' offensive rating is more than three points lower on the road than it is at home (105.2 vs. 108.5), and their defensive rating is more than four points worse as well (105.9 vs. 101.3). While the majority of teams play better at home, Houston's play is markedly different based on environment, and that seven-plus point swing per 100 possessions could mean the difference between a win and a loss.
James Harden may, in fact, be the best shooting guard in the NBA, but he's beginning to show signs of wearing down in his first year as the Houston Rockets' alpha dog.
Harden was a man on fire at the beginning of the season, but he's shooting just 42 percent from the floor since the All-Star break.
The Rockets will only go as far as Harden can take them: The 23-year-old shooting guard this year is averaging 27.8 points per game on 48.3 percent shooting in Houston's wins and just 23.5 PPG on 38.8 percent shooting in the team's losses.
When the postseason kicks off, the 2012-13 Houston Rockets will be the sixth-youngest team in playoff history.
With the exception of the 2010-11 Oklahoma City Thunder, young, inexperienced squads don't do much of anything in the NBA's second season. There's something to be said for a team "paying its dues" as it learns what needs to be done in order to win a title, but the Rockets are at least a year or two away from that point.
James Harden, of course, has playoff experience, but he and center Omer Asik are the only players in Houston's rotation that have made it to a conference finals. To expect such a young squad to make noise in the postseason is unreasonable.
A lot of their inconsistent play this year can be chalked up to their lack of experience and veteran leadership and is likely to be a harbinger of things to come in the playoffs.