The Houston Rockets are back in the playoffs for the first time since the 2008-09 season, and you should look no further for the complete guide to their postseason.
With their loss at the hand of the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night, the Rockets locked up the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference. This pits them against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round of the playoffs.
The road to the NBA Finals will certainly not be an easy one for the low-seeded Rockets. They'll have to make it through the West's elite if they want to play the Eastern Conference's representative in the Finals.
With such a young team, Houston will be exciting to watch in the first round—that much you can expect. The playoffs are often unpredictable, however, so there's nothing wrong with getting a little help to be more knowledgeable about the games' potential outcomes.
This guide will help you do just that.
UPDATE, 4/18/13 @ 5:15 PM:
*END OF UPDATE*
The Thunder will have home-court advantage against the Rockets, meaning the first two games of the round will be played at Chesapeake Energy Arena. The following three will take place at the Toyota Center, followed by the remaining two back at the Chesapeake Energy Arena.
With only the first game being announced as of early Thursday morning, you can check back here after the full first-round schedule has been revealed to find out game dates and times.
For now, here's all the info you'll need about Game 1.
Where? Chesapeake Energy Arena
When? Sunday, April 21
What Time? TBD
Again, this page will be updated as more scheduling information is revealed later on Thursday and Friday.
The Rockets got to the postseason in 2012-13 thanks to a stellar offseason by general manager Daryl Morey. Morey took a poor team from 2011-12, completely tore it apart, and brought in several valuable pieces via free agency and trades.
The first step in the process was signing point guard Jeremy Lin to replace Kyle Lowry (who was traded to the Toronto Raptors). While Lin doesn't have the gaudy numbers that many expected (mostly because of Linsanity) him to put up on a nightly basis, he has played well and has made his team a more cohesive unit.
Omer Asik was the next free agent to sign. The move was met with much scrutiny, as Asik had only started two career games prior to being signed. Asik has since established himself as a top-10 big man in the NBA.
Then, Morey made the move that changed it all. Morey shipped Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, two first-round picks and a second-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for then unproven-superstar James Harden.
Harden has flourished as a full-time starter, and many would argue that he is one of the top-tier players in the game. In his first postseason as a team leader, he'll have to prove just that.
The signing of point guard Patrick Beverley was also a great move by Morey. Gone unnoticed because of Beverley's immediate assignment to Rio Grande Valley of the D-League, the move has given Houston a viable option off the bench for Lin.
An improvement from Chandler Parsons was also essential in Houston's successful season. His sophomore season proved that he can fill the stat sheet (15.4 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game).
Houston, the league's youngest team at 23.7 years of age, would not have made a dent in the Western Conference standings had Harden not been brought aboard. While the other signings may have turned the Rockets into a fringe contender, Harden's addition brought them to a new level.
Kevin McHale has been criticized about his rotation all season long, but expect his playoff rotation to be much tighter and more consistent.
Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley will be the only point guards to see the floor. Aaron Brooks, while a good safety-net pickup late in the season, shouldn't get time in the playoffs. Lin and Beverley are both much better options.
If McHale were wise, Lin would play about 85 percent of the time. Beverley could see time closing out both the first and third quarters, but Lin should be on the court to close out both the second and fourth quarters.
James Harden should be playing 99 percent of the time at shooting guard. To win in the playoffs, you need your best player on the court. To spell him for a few minutes a game, Francisco Garcia could see time. He's played mostly small forward in his time in Houston, but he played 40 games at shooting guard while with the Sacramento Kings this season.
Chandler Parsons, though he's been playing very inconsistently of late, will see a high number of minutes in the postseason. Carlos Delfino will be the first off the bench as the sixth man, but he'll probably only play around 10 to 12 minutes or so per game.
McHale's decision on who to play more at power forward will require much more thought than any other position. Neither Greg Smith or Terrence Jones has set himself apart from the other down the stretch, so we could conceivably see a 50-50 split of playing time at the start. Expect McHale to ride the hot hand after Game 1, however.
Omer Asik, the team's beast on the interior and heart of the defense, should play upwards of 35 minutes per game in the playoffs. Donatas Motiejunas, while a decent enough player, is not nearly on the same level as Asik. Asik will only see the bench in short stints to catch his breath, so don't expect to ever see him on the bench for very long.
Expect the Rockets' potent offense to turn some heads this postseason, but don't expect them to advance to the second round. They have the talent to outscore nearly everyone, but their defensive deficiencies will give opposing teams the clear advantage.
Anything can happen in the playoffs, but the Rockets are at such a disadvantage because of their defense. The Oklahoma City Thunder have two dynamic scorers in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, as well as a beast in the middle in Serge Ibaka. The versatility of their offense will give them the advantage from the onset.
In the end, I also see a big downfall being the iso-ball that Harden and the Rockets like to play. Harden's iso-ball results in many turnovers and forced shots. He often leaves teammates wide open on the perimeter.
It's not that he's an unselfish player, it's just that Kevin McHale's offensive strategy is not conducive to good team basketball.
The NBA world already recognizes Harden as a superstar, but the playoffs will be Omer Asik's coming out party. He's a great defender, while also being a capable scorer in the post. Many don't recognize his skills because he's a relatively "quiet" performer. Given a national stage, expect many to take notice.
The biggest matchup between these two teams will be between Russell Westbrook and Jeremy Lin. Neither is great defensively, but the offensive firepower of Westbrook makes him a legitimate threat.
Given Westbrook's lacking defense, though, don't be surprised if Lin turns his offensive game up a notch. Lin has always been able to capitalize on poor defense (whether that be through attacking the rim or taking mid-range jumpers), so Westbrook will have to stick in there and play tough.
This matchup could have major implications on the series. If Lin can effectively neutralize Westbrook (or if Lin can step up his offensive numbers), then the two players nearly even each other out. Given Westbrook's offensive inefficiency, the two really could perform at similar levels.
If that becomes the case, James Harden will have to step up and play at an entirely different level. With either Thabo Sefolosha or Kevin Martin guarding him, Harden will have to take advantage of his quickness and ability to attack the rim.
Sefolosha is the better defender of the two, but Martin could play significant minutes if the game turns into a shootout. If that happens, Harden can take advantage.
Each team's superstar player will be put to the test in this series. Both Kevin Durant and James Harden will be asked to do more than they have all season. When comparing their stats, we can see that their numbers are pretty similar. Durant has the slight edge, however.
25.9 PPG, 5.9 APG, 4.8 RPG, 44 FG%, 37 3P%
28.1 PPG, 4.6 APG, 7.9 RPG, 51 FG%, 41.6 3P%
Harden will have to step his game up and put up numbers like Durant's to essentially equal what he brings to the court. If the Rockets can make Durant's contributions a wash, then the game will essentially come down to which supporting players can get the job done.
Durant has the ability to take over games and shoot lights out from deep. His consistency gives him a huge edge over Harden. Harden has not been the same consistent shooter he was in the first half of the season.
Durant is the better player (by far), but Harden can match his output if he makes more of his shots.
Houston will have to play team basketball to win this series—plain and simple.
James Harden iso-ball will not get the job done against the Thunder. It's a strategy that has not yielded many positive results of late, and it's a strategy that needs to be discontinued immediately.
The best way to beat the Thunder is to play a quick-pass offense with Lin at the helm. With enough quick passes along the perimeter, Houston is sure to catch Oklahoma City napping and get a high-percentage shot near the basket.
This type of play also leads to easy baskets for big men Omer Asik and Greg Smith. Both will be expected to work hard against grinders like Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins. The Rockets have the upperhand offensively against the two Thunder big men, but Ibaka's prowess down low likely gives the Thunder the advantage on defense.
An advantage that the Rockets have had all season is their transition game. They rank second in the NBA with 18.6 transition points per game. This edge has given the Rockets the advantage in many of the games they've played.
Unfortunately for them, Oklahoma City loves to run as well. They ranked fourth in the league with 16.8 transition points per game.
For the Rockets to win, they'll have to enact a half-court offense centered around team play.
Jeremy Lin will be the biggest X-factor of this series—period. His ability to orchestrate even when James Harden is on the floor will be crucial to the team's success.
Harden has been the team's primary ball-handler all season, though he turns the ball over a ton. His 3.8 turnovers per game are tied with Jrue Holiday for the most in the NBA. Lin, on the other hand, turns it over 2.9 per game—nearly a full turnover less.
Lin also plays with the energy and team mentality that the Rockets need. On a team that likes to run, Lin is unselfish enough to find the open man crashing toward the basket. Oftentimes, Harden will instead take that ball himself and force up a bad shot.
Nobody's asking Lin to be the hero, but he'll need to step up his performance and average near double-digits in assists (along with around 15 points per game).
Aside from Lin, the Rockets' ability to limit the turnovers as a team is a huge X-factor. They turn it over 15.9 times per contest (the most in the league), and those turnovers lead to easy transition baskets for the other team.
Because the Rockets defense isn't anywhere near solid, limiting turnovers will be key. If they can stop teams from scoring easy baskets on defense through being more efficient on offense, then they will have a much better chance of making it out of the first round.
Unfortunately for the Rockets and their fans, this series will likely be all Thunder. I see the Rockets stealing one game away from the defending Western Conference champs, with the series ending in five games.
The Thunder and Rockets play similar offensively. Both teams love to run and shoot, which leads to high point totals and tired legs on the part of the opponent. That being said, Oklahoma City does all those things better than Houston does.
Oklahoma City's offensive efficiency and overall team speed will be too much for Houston to handle. James Harden will do everything he can to shoulder the offensive load for Houston, but his inconsistency this season worries me heading into the playoffs.
The Rockets will certainly play in some close games, but their defense will be what hurts them late. Without a stellar defense, it's extremely difficult to go all the way in the NBA—even if your offense ranks first in the NBA like Houston's.
Then again, the Rockets could easily surprise everyone and come out of the gate firing on all cylinders. If that's the case, then the series gets much more interesting.
The Rockets were always going to be a team to watch in the playoffs, given their potent offense. Them winning is all about how efficient they are at scoring.