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Rockets-Mavericks Playoff Preview: Will Playoff Rondo Show Up to Lead Dallas to Upset?

It took until the last day of the NBA season for the Western Conference playoff picture to come into view, and there was some shuffling on that final day that allowed the Houston Rockets to move up and get the No. 2 seed, setting up a Texas showdown between the second-seeded Rockets and No. 7 Dallas Mavericks.

How Houston Got Here

Coming off a painful playoff exit at the hands of Damian Lillard, the Rockets lost a young talent to a bitter rival when Daryl Morey decided not to match Chandler Parsons’s contract offer from the Mavericks. Houston also thought it had a shot at All-NBA talent Chris Bosh before Bosh ultimately decided to stay in Miami. After being spurned by Bosh, the Rockets signed Trevor Ariza to fill Parsons’s role.

Despite the tumultuous offseason, Houston burst onto the scene this year, starting 16-4. James Harden’s rise to MVP candidacy nullified the injuries to Dwight Howard, who played in only half of the Rockets’ games this year. The offense took a hit with Howard’s injury and Parsons’s departure, but Harden’s sensational season kept the Rockets humming at a respectable rate, as the team ranked 12th in offensive efficiency this season, per NBA.com. Plus, the team needed Harden to take the reins from Howard even more this year to be a true threat in the playoffs, and Howard’s injury allowed Harden to up his usage rate to a career-high 31.3, per Basketball-Reference.

The real surprise has been Houston’s ability to keep the defense working with Howard being injured. The team was 12th in defensive efficiency last season, but improved to sixth this season despite missing Howard and losing Patrick Beverley to a season-ending injury. Part of this is Harden having a career-best defensive year. Harden’s leap from atrocious defender to around league average on the perimeter has helped fortify the team’s wing defense, as has the arrival of Ariza. Inside, the acquisition of Josh Smith helped the depth, and Donatas Motiejunas improved as well.

Harden’s amazing year coupled with the improved defense allowed the Rockets to clinch that No. 2 seed on the last day of the season despite a litany of health problems. The team did lose both Beverley and Motiejunas to injuries, and this could be crucial. Beverley’s injury was widely regarded as significant since he was the starting point guard, but Motiejunas’s might be just as crucial. The Rockets don’t have a ton of shot creators, and D-Mo was turning into someone who could get his own shot with an array of post moves, and he could also seek out teammates with improved vision. Still, the Rockets hope that the streaky Jason Terry and enigmatic Smith prove to be capable replacements, and that this is the team’s best shot at a title in the Daryl Morey era.

Key Player for Houston: Dwight Howard

Harden is one of the league’s top two MVP candidates and will obviously have a huge impact on the series. But Howard’s play and mentality could just as easily make or break this Houston team.

Howard has been a much better pick-and-roll player than post player since joining the Rockets. His post moves typically relied on one quick burst in either direction, and that burst hasn’t been the same since his initial back injury. But Howard is still big, strong and athletic enough to be an issue for defenses when playing the pick-and-roll.

For whatever reason, Howard still fancies himself an effective post-up threat. To his credit, his post-ups were pretty successful against Robin Lopez and Portland in last year’s playoffs. But Lopez isn’t Tyson Chandler, and the Rockets need to resist trying to dump it into the post several possessions a half for Howard. Chandler is one of the best isolation post defenders in the league, and posting Howard plays right into the Mavericks’ hands.

Dallas really struggles on defense when the perimeter players are forced to make quick rotations, so the Rockets should stick with a perimeter-oriented approach. Howard can still get touches, but Houston should resort to him after Chandler is out of position cleaning up teammates’ mistakes.

It doesn’t all have to be pick-and-roll, either. Watch this play that ends in a Howard layup (via YouTube):

Chandler is forced to help cut off the baseline after Parsons forces Ariza there. Ariza makes the right read in getting the ball to Howard. In theory, the other big will slide over to contain Howard, but Dirk Nowitzki just doesn’t offer much on defense anymore, and Howard gets an easy layup.

Howard should also be able to feast on offensive rebounds. Dallas had the second-worst defensive rebounding rate in the league, and Houston was tied for sixth-best in offensive rebounding rate. While Chandler is challenging other players’ shots, Howard will be able to wreak havoc on the offensive glass and get easy putbacks.

The Rockets’ defense was impressive this year without Howard, but was still much better with him. Howard led all Rockets regulars with a 97.0 defensive rating, per NBA.com. So, with Howard on the floor, Houston’s defensive rating was better than Golden State’s league-leading 98.2.

Defending the Mavericks is tricky for bigs controlling the paint. It’s imperative to help on the drives, but Dallas has excellent lob throwers all along the perimeter, and one of the best in the business at sneaking backdoor for dunks in Chandler. Even though he’s just getting back into form, Howard needs to be in just the right spots for Houston to have a chance at defending the Mavericks’ potent attack.

How Dallas Got Here

Long before the Spurs dominated the Heat in last year’s finals, San Antonio struggled in the first round against the Mavericks. After Dallas lost in seven games to the eventual champions, Mark Cuban went about fixing the team, reacquiring Tyson Chandler along with Raymond Felton for Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington and two second-round picks. Chandler was the defensive catalyst for the Mavericks’ lone title run, and Cuban hoped he could improve the Mavericks sub-par defense this season.

Then, Dallas strengthened its team by weakening the rival Rockets, signing Chandler Parsons to a lucrative offer sheet that Houston decided not to match.

The team started out strong at 19-8 and was one of the best offensive teams in the league to start the season. But the defense was nowhere near championship caliber, so Cuban decided to pull the trigger on a blockbuster trade to acquire Rajon Rondo for Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder, Jameer Nelson, a 2015 first-round pick and 2016 second-round pick.

Rondo struggled to get acclimated to the Mavericks’ offense, but the team won seven of the first nine games after the trade. But then the Mavericks started to struggle, losing six of the next 10 games Rondo played in and looking out of sorts with Rondo on the floor. Rondo’s lack of shooting ability and incredibly awful free throw shooting and resulting reluctance to go to the rim hurt the Mavericks’ ball-moving offense. Somehow, Rondo shot 3-of-15 on free throws in January and February combined.

All in all, the Mavericks went 31-24 in games after the Rondo trade, and 26-20 in games that Rondo played.

The struggles during parts of the season are hardly on Rondo alone. The team has the fourth-worst defensive rating out of playoff teams, and 18th in the league. Rondo was brought in to help the team reach another level defensively, and the Mavericks are counting on Chandler and him doing just that in the postseason to make a run. And despite some bumps in the road and a seventh-place finish in the conference, Dallas still won 50 games and proved itself as one of the best offensive teams in the league.

Key Player for Dallas: Rajon Rondo

It’s safe to say Rondo has been a disappointment since coming to the Mavericks, but that can all change in a few games if he hits his stride in the playoffs. Rondo has played excellent basketball when it has mattered most for the majority of his career, and Dallas will need that version of Rondo to advance to the second round.

Rondo has definitely hurt the offense for Dallas since his arrival, but he can still be effective on that end. Dallas has seen its transition offense take off this season, and Rondo has helped that.

Notice how Rondo uses his vision to create a better fast break chance here (off a made basket, no less):

Most point guards would push the ball for the two-on-two fast break, but Rondo notices Monta Ellis coming into the play. He slows down enough to give Ellis an opening through the middle, then hits him with the pass at just the right time. It’s this kind of vision, in both the half-court and transition, that can get the Mavericks easy baskets at the right times.

However, Rondo wasn’t brought in to improve the Mavericks’ offense. Dallas was already one of the best offenses in the game before Rondo arrived, and his lack of shooting definitely hurts the spacing of the team. It’s on the defensive side of the ball that Rondo needs to be a difference maker if Dallas is to advance.

Dallas has been better with Rondo on the floor, but not significantly so. Dallas has a defensive efficiency of 103.7 overall, and that improves to 102.9 with Rondo on the floor, per NBA.com.

But it’s possible Rondo could turn it up a notch for the postseason. Although Harden will get numerous looks, Rondo remains the most logical choice to defend him. In the last meeting of the season, Rondo did a good job of making Harden work for tough shots, and, as soon as Rondo left the game in the fourth quarter, Harden got into the lane with little resistance.

Rondo’s willingness to accept the challenge of guarding the league’s best scorers is well documented. He took a turn on LeBron James in the playoffs when the Heat and Celtics were duking it out, and fared better than expected. His length and intelligence can make him a defensive game changer, when he’s consistent and stays within his team’s defensive system. If Dallas is going to turn around its defensive woes of the regular season, Rondo and Chandler are going to have to play prominent roles in that rejuvenation.

Season Series Outcome

The Rockets took three of the four games between the two teams in this year’s series, but it’s hard to put much stock in these games.

For starters, the Mavericks were on the second game of a back-to-back in all four games, and it showed down the stretch. The first three games also featured much different looking teams than are currently playing, with Dallas’s lone win coming with a shorthanded bunch.

The Mavericks were able to keep Harden’s shooting percentage down, but, like most of the league, couldn’t keep him off the foul line, so he was still fairly efficient. The games also featured lots of fast-paced, if not always high scoring, action. This makes sense, as the Rockets play at the second-fastest pace in the league, and the Mavericks play at the ninth-highest pace, per NBA.com.

Prediction

A rivalry series in the loaded West will always be fun in the first round, but this series has the promise to be especially entertaining.

Off the court, Parsons returning to Houston for the playoffs will be a big storyline, and Daryl Morey and Mark Cuban are definitely the front-runners for executives most likely to get into a fistfight in the opening round. This will also be one of Nowitzki’s last runs, and, with Chandler and Rondo entering free agency and Ellis having a player option, possibly the only run for this version of the Mavericks.

On the court, there are going to be plenty of stretches of beautiful basketball. If you love transition baskets, this is the series for you. Both teams are in the top five in the league in fastbreak points per game and both are also in the top five for most fastbreak points allowed, per teamrankings.com. So, the numbers suggest there will be a lot of opportunities in the open court. And if you like unguardable plays, Harden’s drives to the hoop and Nowitzki’s fadeaways are both must-watch television.

Unfortunately, there will probably be some stretches of basketball that are not so pleasant. Obviously, there are going to be a ton of free throws with any Houston game, and both teams might try intentionally fouling the other team’s bad free throw shooters.

Rondo is shooting a laughably bad 39.7 percent on free throws this year, but has at least shot over 70 percent (albeit on only 17 attempts) in the last two months. That’s a really small sample size, but it’s possible he’ll continue to regress to the mean.

Meanwhile, Houston employs four players that figure to play in this series who are all shooting under 53 percent. (Howard, Smith, Joey Dorsey and Clint Capela) With the struggles of the Mavericks’ defense, Rick Carlisle may elect to send the poor shooters to the line, making for some boring basketball.

The Mavericks should win the turnover battle, as Dallas has been excellent in taking care of the basketball while Houston hasn’t been. Houston has the third-highest turnover ratio in the league, while Dallas sports the third-lowest.

But it just seems like the Rockets will be able to find too many easy points against the Mavericks. Harden makes 8.8 free throws a game, over half of the makes Dallas earns as a team per game, and the Mavericks haven’t shown an ability to keep him off the line.

Also, Houston’s offensive rebounding is going to be an issue for Dallas. The big men on the Rockets should be able to crash the boards with regularity, and Dallas can’t afford to allow second chance opportunities when the team struggles so much on defense.

If Playoff Rondo and vintage Dirk show up, Dallas could certainly pull off the upset, but Houston isn’t a great matchup for Rick Carlisle’s squad. Too many things have to go right for Dallas to win this series, which is why Houston will win it in 6.

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