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Why the Rockets are a True Championship Contender

Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports

Before the opening round of the playoffs started, Mark Cuban took some shots at the Rockets, calling the team “predictable” and “not a very good team.

After a dominant effort by Houston, however, Cuban saw exactly how good that team could be. Houston dispatched Dallas on Tuesday, 103-94, to claim a decisive 4-1 series win over its bitter in-state rival.

Cuban had to see the fatal flaws on his own roster, but that’ll be addressed in the offseason. For now, the focus is on how good the Rockets can be, and whether this is a championship contending team.

The Rockets certainly played the part in Round 1, albeit over an injured and flawed Mavericks team. Now, Houston must wait out the winner of the Clippers-Spurs series. The Clippers winning their seven-game series over the Spurs would be the best-case scenario for the Rockets, since Los Angeles is a much better matchup for James Harden’s squad. San Antonio would bring about noted Harden-stopper Kawhi Leonard and a lethal motion offense that could expose some of Houston’s below-average individual defenders. The Clippers wouldn’t present these issues, but would pose a huge challenge nonetheless.

Regardless of the opponent, Houston has shown a different ceiling in the first round than seemed possible throughout the regular season. The rejuvenation of Dwight Howard has cleaned up some of Houston’s defensive mistakes and given the team a lethal pick-and-roll option on offense.

Howard flashed his peak form throughout the series, averaging 16.6 points and 13.8 rebounds and providing an intimidating presence when Dallas drove to the rim. Houston thought it was getting a superstar when Howard signed, and he’s playing like one now. Howard played very well last postseason as well, but Houston was still eliminated in the first round.

But this year, Howard has a better team. Harden plays real defense now and is better than ever offensively. Harden averaged 28.4 points on 46.5 percent shooting against the Mavericks after sub-par playoff performances the last two years, and he got to the line 10.4 times per game. So much for the theory that the referees will swallow their whistles on his drives in the playoffs.

Josh Smith can be a real asset, as long as he doesn’t try to be too much of one. It’s a little concerning how reliant the Rockets were on Smith in Round 1, but there was much more good Josh than bad Josh. Also, Jason Terry and Corey Brewer bring just the right amount of insane confidence that make them dangerous. If they’re hitting threes, watch out. The same can be said for Trevor Ariza, who will play great defense nonetheless.

The injuries to Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas will likely be more important against better teams. Beverley would give the Rockets the perfect defender for Chris Paul, and Motiejunas would be another shot creator against a Spurs defense that’s good at taking away the primary option.

But for now, the Rockets appear to be a serious threat to any team left in the playoffs, and many weren’t willing to say that before the playoffs started. So, Houston did more than just win a first-round series. It put itself in the true contender conversation.

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