Over the last few months, the Houston Rockets have firmly solidified themselves as legitimate title contenders. Since January, the Rockets are 23-7 and have the second-best net rating in the league, per NBA.com. Sometimes it takes a few months for teams to mesh, and it's starting to look like this is one of those cases.
There's still some time left in the regular season, but it's certainly not too early to look ahead and scout out a few of Houston's potential first-round playoff opponents.
The Rockets seem almost certain to land one of the Western Conference's top four seeds, and as such, we'll be taking a look at the West's current five through eight spots (sorry, Phoenix Suns). Rankings go from best possible matchup to worst possible matchup.
Let's do this.
No. 4—Portland Trail Blazers
This is no slight to the Portland Trail Blazers, who are a very dangerous team despite falling in the standings over the past few weeks.
The Blazers' offense is still one of the best in the league, thanks to a combination of terrific ball movement and outside shooting. And perhaps more importantly, their defense has actually been quite good since February. Couple that with some killer offensive rebounding, and you're generally looking at a tough out in the playoffs.
Just not for the Rockets.
The Rockets' defense is designed to entice teams into taking lots of mid-range jumpers, and the Rockets defend those jumpers better than almost anyone.
That's a huge problem for a team like the Blazers, who take more mid-range shots than any other team in the league and are heavily reliant on LaMarcus Aldridge's pick-and-pop game. Aldridge, believe it or not, has taken significantly more mid-range jumpers than the entire Houston team.
Aldridge has had some big volume scoring games against the Rockets this year, but they've actually defended him very well—he's averaging nearly 24 shots a game against them.
It's not just Aldridge, though. There are mismatches everywhere in this one. The Rockets are one of the league's top scoring teams in the paint. Almost no team allows more shots at the rim than the Blazers (though, to be fair, they protect the basket well).
The Rockets turn the ball over more than any other team. The Blazers force the fewest turnovers in the league.
It's not as though Portland would have no chance in this series. It defends three-pointers very well and could take advantage of Houston on the offensive glass. And so far this season, the Trail Blazers have done a good job of forcing the Rockets into turnovers.
Still, if there's one series the Rockets would likely walk away from with a win, it's this one.
No. 3—Dallas Mavericks
This is a tough one. The Rockets have shredded the Mavericks defense this year, and it's hard to imagine them not walking away with a series win if the two teams meet in the first round. Still, there's one thing at play that has to give you pause—the fact that Houston clearly has no idea what to do with Dirk Nowitzki.
Nowitzki is averaging 32 points, nine rebounds and three assists per game on 70 (!!) percent true shooting against the Rockets this year. That's insane. Houston doesn't really have a good option when it comes to guarding Nowitzki, and he's burned the team repeatedly both on the block and in the pick-and-roll.
The Rockets are often aggressive attacking guards off the pick-and-roll, a dicey proposition when Nowitzki's on the floor because of stuff like this.
And even if something like a Nowitzki-Monta Ellis pick-and-roll doesn't end in an open shot, it frequently leads to bad switches. Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin have both been caught on the block with Nowtizki multiple times in games against Dallas.
Guess how that usually goes?
The defensive scheme the Rockets have cooked up is a good one, but it's not built to defend against 7-footers who can bomb threes and hit nearly 50 percent from mid-range. Houston could choose not to be so aggressive with its defense, but giving Ellis a free pass to the rim isn't exactly ideal either.
Again, the Rockets would have no problems offensively against an old, slow Mavs defense. The Mavs get murdered in transition, per Synergy Sports Technology (subscription required), they really only have two competent perimeter defenders, and Dwight Howard can bully Samuel Dalembert on both ends.
Houston would and should be heavily favored against Dallas. But thanks (mostly) to Nowitzki, no team has scored more efficiently against the Rockets this season, per NBA.com, and that alone makes the Mavs dangerous.
No. 2—Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors are a strange team.
Despite all the hoopla about the “Splash Brothers,” the Warriors are a mediocre offensive squad that's led by one of the best defenses in the league. And in some ways, that's what could make them so dangerous in the playoffs. There's way too much talent on this team to be just so-so on offense.
What happens if they get it together on that end?
Houston has actually handled Golden State pretty well this season: The Rockets lead the season series 2-1, with the one loss coming in the second game of a back-to-back on the road. But the Dubs were missing either Andre Iguodala or Andrew Bogut in each of those games, and when healthy, they could be a handful.
Golden State has the personnel to make trouble for Houston. Bogut is one of the few bigs in the league capable of going toe-to-toe with Howard; Iguodala and Draymond Green are both excellent defensive wings, and the Warriors can play big or small if the situation demands it.
Mark Jackson hasn't gone small all that much this year, but it was a big part of Golden State's success in the 2013 playoffs, and you can bet that he'll be downsizing more when this year's postseason rolls around. The Warriors have been awesome with David Lee at center this season, per 82games.com, and he's killed the Rockets in the past on bad switches and smart cuts.
Now to be fair, the Rockets have done a terrific job defending the three-point line, and Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry haven't had much luck against them. The Warriors also don't attack the rim all that much—something you have to do consistently to beat the Rockets.
That puts them just a hair behind the next team in the rankings, but they're still not someone that Houston should be looking forward to playing in the first round.
No. 1—Memphis Grizzlies
This is the really scary one. The Rockets are 2-2 against the Memphis Grizzlies this year, but they're 0-2 when Memphis center Marc Gasol is in the lineup, and that includes an 18-point blowout loss. So...yeah.
Memphis has a ton of strong defenders to toss at James Harden and Chandler Parsons (Tony Allen, James Johnson, Courtney Lee, etc.,), and Dwight Howard has managed just 10 points and nine boards per game against the Grizzlies this season.
The problem is that the Rockets do almost all of their scoring from the “analytics friendly” spots on the court—at the rim, from the line or from three—and that's where the Grizzlies are at their best defensively.
Memphis has been merely good, not great, at defending threes this season, and Parsons had a ridiculous shooting night against the team a few months back. But the Grizz were among the NBA's top teams at defending the three-point line last year, and now that they're fully healthy, there's no reason to think they won't get back to that.
Memphis would undoubtedly struggle to score against Houston, as it struggles to score against just about every good defense. But the Rockets wouldn't exactly light up the Grizzlies either, and the last thing Houston wants is a first-round slugfest against a team that forces a lot of turnovers and won't let them run.
The Rockets would probably still be favored in this series, but the Grizzlies are the only team they could face in the first round that has outplayed them this year and the one that would wear them down the most.
If there was ever a series to avoid, it's this one.
All stats accurate as of 3/11/2014 and courtesy of Basketball-Reference or NBA.com unless specifically stated otherwise.