The Houston Rockets are dangerous.
Very few people — if anyone — expect the Minnesota Timberwolves to give them a serious run in their first-round matchup, which starts Sunday night in Houston.
That’s because the Rockets finished the season with the second-best offensive rating (by one-tenth of a point per 100 possessions) and the sixth-best defensive rating in the NBA, per NBA.com.
Part of this is their MVP, the other All-Star guard and a breakout center, but they also have major success because they’re one of the deepest teams in the NBA.
With that, we’ll go through the entire rotation and try to figure out exactly what makes this team go.
James Harden makes this team go. That was easy!
Past the fact that he’s the best player on the best regular season team in the NBA, he’s gained MVP steam by putting up monster numbers and consistently taking over games down the stretch — although very few games (they played a total of eight games by three points or less) required late-game heroics.
Still, that often happened because, simply put, the Rockets are as good as they are. Harden is a master at getting to the basket, a willing passer and an elite shooter.
His defense has always been a sore subject, but he’s been the most valuable player in the NBA this season. He will be rewarded as such.
The Rockets were a good team before Chris Paul showed up; they’re a great team now that he’s here.
This is, in many ways, the first time Paul has joined a team as anything but the team’s alpha. Harden remains the face of the team, and Paul has done everything right in terms of accepting his new role.
But that doesn’t mean Paul has had to sit in the corner and wait for his shot, either. In the 1,847 minutes Paul played this season, he played about half of those — 970 in total — with Harden in the lineup, according to NBA.com.
This means he got 877 minutes as the team’s lead guard, and this is the main reason why the Rockets are so dangerous. Even when Harden was out of the game, the Rockets still had a top-tier lead man running the offense.
Capela has been one of the best feel-good stories in the NBA this season. He became an NBA mainstay during his first couple years in Houston, but became a clearcut starter last season after Dwight Howard left for Atlanta.
He’s experiencing career-highs in field goal percentage (a category he’s leading the NBA in), points, rebounds, blocks and, not surprisingly, minutes.
He’s become the third cog in Houston’s dangerous pick-and-roll, and is the key stopper on the inside. And when you’re sixth in defensive rating — albeit third-worst defending the paint — you must be doing something right.
Tucker has never been a stat-stuffer, but the cliche is real with him: He makes his impact off the stat sheet.
He’s a smart defender, a bruiser in the paint — against smaller wings, mostly — and shot 37 percent on nearly four 3-point attempts per game. He’ll never go out and win a game for Houston, but he’s yet another example of a role player that has embraced his situation for the better of the team.
Tucker played nearly 28 minutes per game this year, and it’s unclear what his role will be with a (likely) shortened playoff bench. He’s not a strong candidate for getting pulled from the rotation, but a limit on his time on the floor is fairly likely.
Still, there are few players — based on size and build alone — better equipped for guarding a guy like Butler. He could be useful for that purpose, if nothing else. But as long as he’s effectively the starting power forward, his assignment will likely be Taj Gibson.
Talk about a bruiser battle.
Few players have managed to create and maintain a role for themselves so early in their careers the way Ariza managed to. He won his first and only NBA title in 2009 as a 3-point shooter and defensive specialist for the Los Angeles Lakers — little has changed since then.
As time has gone on, his 3-point attempts have skyrocketed — as has his percentage from deep — but his role hasn’t changed much. That’s why he’s dangerous, though. He knows his role and has always embraced it, no matter where he’s gone.
He’ll likely get assigned to guarding Jimmy Butler in this series. That’s a tough task for anyone, but the Rockets have always felt more comfortable with their team defensive strategy with him on the floor. Butler might have a good series, but Ariza will still make good decisions on both ends of the floor.
There is no two-man combo that played together this year for Houston than Harden and Ariza. That’s because Ariza is easy to plug in any situation and get positive results.
Gordon made a name for himself as a killer sixth man last season with Houston — this year has been just as good. He’s scoring more at a more efficient rate despite playing the same amount of minutes and taking about the same number of shots.
He almost certainly won’t repeat as Sixth Man of the Year (Lou Williams), but his improvements in 3-point shooting, true shooting and effective field goal percentage are still impressive feats.
Gordon was especially huge this year with Harden missing 10 games and Paul missing 24. They relied on him to be a focal point of the offense and a secondary ball handler.
His top-notch stroke from deep paired with his ability to create off the dribble make him a perfect complement for Harden and Paul off the bench.
This is part of the reason why the Rockets struggle to defend the paint so much. As good as Capela can be on the inside, Anderson is the opposite.
His skill comes on the offensive end, specifically from the outside. The Timberwolves know that.
He made 12 3s in the first three games between the two teams, and was the key Wolves killer in the Feb. 13 matchup at the Target Center, nailing six treys. His role is extremely defined; and despite his shortcomings, he performs it well.
He did have his starting spot taken by P.J. Tucker towards the final stretch of the season, so it’ll be interesting to see what Mike D’Antoni does with his lineups once his team is fully healthy.
For now, Anderson is questionable for Sunday’s Game 1 matchup, so the Wolves might be off the hook on Anderson’s range. For now.
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
Mbah a Moute isn’t what he was during his short stint with the Timberwolves. Under Rick Adelman, he was a rarely-used defensive specialist with no semblance of a jumper.
But when he moved onto the LA Clippers, he developed a corner 3 that helped expand his game and the possibilities with him on the floor. He moved with Paul from Houston, and he’s continued to shoot at a high rate from deep.
Like Anderson, Mbah a Moute isn’t expected to play Sunday, but will instantly become a factor when he gets back.
Gerald Green was a mid-season pickup by Houston and has seen mild success since joining up. His job is simply to shoot 3s and little else — he takes 7.3 treys in just 22.7 minutes per game. To his credit, he’s shooting nearly 37 percent.
His struggles on the defensive end are partially why he wasn’t picked up until late December, and might make it hard for D’Antoni to play him big playoff minutes. But if the Rockets are ever starving for buckets, Green will be ready.
Once upon a time, Johnson was an All-Star caliber wing capable of both making plays for himself and hitting off the catch. He now struggles with both.
After a great intro year with Utah in 2016-17, Johnson struggled to start this season; he was bought out by Utah mid-season and eventually picked up by Houston.
And while those struggles might have persisted in Houston, his veteran and playoff leadership might be useful in the bigger series.
He only mustered 52 games this season, but Nenê split time with Tarik Black as the backup center. He’s missed lots of time due to injury — most recently back issues — but his size will be a problem if he gets minutes off the bench.
It wouldn’t be shocking to see the Rockets go small in the first round, especially with Minnesota’s smaller frontcourt bench, but Nenê’s post game and general strength could be useful in spots.
He played 38 minutes in the regular season finale, but Black is mostly a spot-minutes backup for the Rockets.
If Nenê is healthy, it’s unlikely he’ll see the floor. But if the Rockets need a spurt of energy and rebounding, Black could be a useful spot tool — just as he’s done all season.
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