The Houston Rockets have the talent to go farther than expected in the 2014 NBA playoffs. With a strong starting rotation and favorable seeding, Houston has a puncher's chance of making a deep postseason run.
Now, to make the case for how Houston can exceed expectations, we must first establish what people are expecting from James Harden and company. ESPN analyst and former Rockets head coach Jeff Van Gundy made the boldest of statements when he recently picked Houston to win it all, according to David Barron of UltimateRockets.com. Here's why:
They play fast, they score easily, and they have a talent in James Harden who is as hard to guard as anybody not named Kevin Durant or LeBron James,” Van Gundy said. “They have a center (Dwight Howard) who gives them a force in the paint, who can rebound, and then they have one of the best competitors in (point guard Patrick) Beverley; I just love his mentality in attacking each and every opponent. I think Houston has as good a chance as anyone to come out of the West.
Meanwhile, Bleacher Report's own R. Cory Smith, via Vegas Insider, has the Rockets' championship odds at 30-1.
Smith's prediction article also has Houston getting eliminated by the Portland Trail Blazers in the first round. Meanwhile, both B/R's Bryan Toporek and SB Nation's Tom Ziller have the Rockets losing to the San Antonio Spurs in the second round.
In fairness, Houston and the Oklahoma City Thunder are the only two teams to sweep the Spurs this season. Whether you put much stock in regular-season records is up to you. Personally, I like Houston's chances of surprising San Antonio and advancing to the Western Conference Finals.
There are three factors in Houston being able to pull off the upset, and these keys will be the same in any playoff series, regardless of who the Rockets are up against.
Own The Paint
The Houston Rockets brought in Dwight Howard to be a beast on both ends of the court, especially in the paint.
So far, he's lived up to his end of the deal. D12 averaged 18.3 points, 12.2 rebounds (fourth in the NBA) and 1.8 blocks (seventh) per game in the regular season while also shooting 59 percent from the field.
His presence is what makes this team different from last year's group. Omer Asik was solid on the glass and at protecting the rim last season, but he wasn't someone you could rely on to put up a ton of points down low.
With Howard and Asik both in the fold now, the Rockets should have a considerable edge in the paint in the the playoffs. Houston finished the regular season fourth in the NBA in rebounding with an average of 45.3 boards per game.
In the first round, they'll be up against a Portland team that leads the league in that category. For the Rockets to have any considerable postseason success, they must plant their flag in the interior.
That means owning the glass, attacking the basket and making points in the post hard to come by for opposing teams. While the Asik-Howard tandem hasn't been a perfect fit this season, playing the two together gives the Rockets a huge frontcourt capable of achieving all three of those things.
Asik found his groove in the final month of the regular season, averaging 10.7 points, 14.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game in April. A lot of that production came in relief of an injured Howard, which means Houston shouldn't miss too much of a beat when they need to sub in Asik to give Dwight a breather.
Another key to owning the paint will be James Harden. While "The Beard" has shown a tendency to fall in love with the three-point shot (averaging 6.6 attempts from downtown per game, converting 36.6 percent), he's at his best when he can attack the basket and draw fouls.
Houston has the kind of versatile offense that can be dangerous from anywhere on the court, but staking claim to the paint should be the team's priority.
Much like the run game in football, pounding the ball inside effectively opens up things on the outside. By forcing opposing defenses to close on Howard or whomever in the paint, opportunities will arise for Houston's bevy of shooters to take plenty of wide-open looks.
On the other end, protecting the rim is Houston's only real chance at playing defense. The team's perimeter defense is broken and it won't be fixed in the postseason. If Houston is going to get stops, it will be because they force some tough shots or get their hands on a few blocks.
With Howard, Asik and an emerging Donatas Motiejunas, the Rockets have the size to dominate in the paint. That will be huge in a Western Conference loaded with premier big men.
Run, Run, Run
Houston has made its mark on offense by playing an uptempo style as well as utilizing their speed and athleticism. According to ESPN's Hollinger Stats, the Rockets are fifth in the NBA in pace. The four teams above them (Philadelphia, LA Lakers, Denver, Minnesota) will be watching the playoffs from their couch.
Houston is also fourth in offensive efficiency with a rating of 108.6.
The Rockets should turn every game into a track meet to wear down opponents, especially older teams like the Spurs. You think it's a coincidence that two of the most athletic teams in the league were the only ones to sweep San Antonio? I don't.
When Houston gets a rebound, they need to run. When Houston gets their hands on a loose ball, they need to run.
As mentioned before, Houston doesn't have the stoppers on the outside to contain opponents. They are going to have to win a lot of shootouts, and the key to that will be making teams struggle to keep up with them.
The core of this team is young and in the prime of their careers. Dwight Howard is 28 years old. Chandler Parsons, Patrick Beverley and Jeremy Lin are 25. James Harden is 24. The only member of the regular rotation that's over 30 is veteran Francisco Garcia (32 years old).
They need to take advantage of those young legs and aggressively attack the basket. It will tire out defenses but, most importantly, it will get opponents in foul trouble while sending Houston to the line for some easy points.
The Rockets averaged more free-throw attempts (31.1 FTA per game) than any team in the NBA during the regular season. Part of that is due to teams utilizing the Hack-a-Dwight strategy, but another reason is guys like Harden and Lin muscling their way to the cup.
Houston is going to rely heavily on the three in these playoffs. They led the league in three-point attempts as well. However, the smart strategy is to continuously find ways to get out in the fast break and run until opposing defenses are scraping their tongues on the floor.
Obviously, avoiding turnovers is key for any team, but it is especially important for the Rockets. After leading the league with 15.8 turnovers per game last season, Houston "improved" in the area by finishing just behind Philadelphia with an average of 15.4 TOs per contest.
The downside to attacking the basket and being aggressive is that it could lead to being careless. James Harden is the biggest culprit on the team in this area. Only OKC's Russell Westbrook and Golden State's Stephen Curry average more turnovers among qualified players than Harden's 3.6 turnovers per game.
Harden isn't the only issue though. Dwight Howard isn't too far down the list with 3.2 turnovers per game. Jeremy Lin has shown some improvement in this area, but he's still averaging 2.5 turnovers a night.
The teams that play smart and don't commit a ton of costly turnovers are usually the last ones vying for an NBA championship. In last year's playoffs, Miami and San Antonio were among the best at not committing turnovers, finishing fifth and sixth, respectively.
The year before that, Oklahoma City finished third while the Heat finished sixth. What a surprise that those three teams were in the NBA Finals the last two years?
No team is going to be perfect, but turnovers have been an epidemic in Houston for awhile now. Head coach Kevin McHale has to figure out a way to curb the mistakes. The Rockets have as much talent as anyone in the playoffs, but they aren't going anywhere if they continue to hurt themselves.
While Van Gundy may be in the minority with his prediction over who is coming out of the West, his statement isn't far-fetched. The Rockets have been on the championship radar since they landed Dwight Howard in the offseason.
Few teams can offer what Houston brings to the table. They have a great inside-outside duo in Howard and Harden. They have a solid third option in Chandler Parsons. They have one of the league's best defensive point guards in Patrick Beverley as well as a couple wild cards in Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik.
In a recent conversation with USA Today's Sam Amick, Howard would appear to agree:
We have a great squad. You look at the guys we have on our team: We have a guy in James (Harden) who can get buckets for you at any time, and then we've got Chandler (Parsons), who has been playing great all year. Not only that, you have Pat (Beverley), who is playing great defense up top. You've got Jeremy (Lin). We've got Omer (Asik). We have a lot of guys.
The Rockets do, indeed, have a lot of guys. But there's a difference between having a lot of guys and having a championship team. Any franchise can look the part on paper. The trick is to show and prove it.
The majority vote seems to think Houston won't make it out of the second round, but they'll likely be up against an opponent in San Antonio that they've handled well all season. If they get to the Western Conference Finals, who's to say momentum won't carry them to another upset?
This is when the season matters. The prior 82 games were pomp and circumstance. In the end, you're remembered by whether you hoisted the trophy or not. As Howard said in the Amick article, "all you have to do is win. When you win games, nobody can say anything".
He's absolutely right and, for the Rockets to silence the naysayers, they'll need keep these three key factors in mind.