Previewing the first-round NBA playoff series between the Houston Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks.

By Rob Mahoney
April 16, 2015

Matchup: (2) Houston Rockets vs. (7) Dallas Mavericks
Season Series: 3-1, Houston
Efficiency rankings: Houston (Off. Rating: 12, Def. Rating: 6, Net Rating: 6), Dallas (Off. Rating: 5, Def. Rating: 18, Net Rating: 8)

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The Matchup

For those not content with the NBA’s trend toward congenial rivalry, the Rockets and Mavs offer a playoff relationship of a slightly testier sort. There’s enough recent shared history between the franchises to amp up the competitive energy between them. Chandler Parsons, drafted by the Rockets in 2011, left Houston in restricted free agency last year to sign a match-prohibitive offer sheet with Dallas. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey said his team was in a “better place” after losing Parsons.

Both teams made their pitches to Dwight Howard in the summer of 2013 and the star center chose Houston. Morey opined that “the choice was pretty obvious between the two teams. Dwight is the smart guy in this.” Mavs owner Mark Cuban wondered aloud if Monta Ellis, the player Dallas signed into the cap room earmarked for Howard, was the better acquisition.

To top it all off: Morey inquired about Dirk Nowitzki’s availability in what Cuban interpreted to be a taunt; Cuban sniped back at Houston’s lack of playoff success; various Mavericks have been relatively clear in terms of preferring the playoff matchup against the Rockets; and the ever-chatty Jason Terry, an eight-year Maverick, now starts at point guard for the Rockets and won’t shy away from playing the heel. The basketball will take care of itself between two teams that both have fair reason to be optimistic. It can’t hurt, though, for their seven-game showdown to be backdropped in a little drama.

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The Case For The Rockets

Though limited by injury, Houston enters this series as the favorite on the strength of its balance. Howard played only half the season and still the Rockets landed just outside the top five in points allowed per possession. That stands as tribute to a true team effort; even without a singular, anchoring defender at the center of Houston’s operations, the short-handed Rockets leveraged activity and instinct to smother shooters and force turnovers.

Add Howard on the back line and Houston has a decent formula for slowing Dallas’ offense. What the Rockets lack in individual answers for Ellis and Nowitzki they make up for in team pressure and rim protection. Howard, if in relatively good form, is the kind of addition that transforms the matchup. His help offers a safety net on those possessions when James Harden or Trevor Ariza chase a steal too aggressively, or those where Terry or Pablo Prigioni is beat off the dribble outright. Together with help defenders slinking away from the Mavs’ non-shooters, there should be enough active hands to prevent Dallas from hitting a critical threshold of easy offense.

From there, Houston benefits from having the single-most unstoppable creator in the series. Harden is a terror with a live dribble—a driver whose moves cannot be pinned and passes cannot be predicted. Any possession that doesn’t go as the Rockets intend can redirect through Harden. Even the most basic of isolations sing with Harden conducting, resulting in points from the field and the line in impressive frequency.

There’s also enough going on around Harden to keep opponents relatively honest. Ariza, Josh Smith, and Terrence Jones can all manufacture a little something off the dribble. The transition game is a catalyst from which Harden sprints downhill and the Rockets on the whole flock to the three-point line. The offensive glass is characteristically a weapon for Houston, conveniently coinciding with defensive rebounding being a liability for Dallas. Corey Brewer’s activity off the ball can spring him free at just the right moment. Howard, too, has done a nice job of staying involved without demanding bulk post-ups—sliding in seamlessly with a team that learned to churn along without him. 

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The Case For The Mavericks

Hope for Dallas comes in that Houston only has one perimeter threat really worth building a gameplan around. Ariza, Terry and Brewer will all play their piece, but none are in a position to exploit hidden, cross-matched defenders. That allows the Mavs some invaluable protection for Ellis and important rest for Chandler Parsons—both of whom will be needed to pry open scoring windows against the Rockets’ D.

All of which brings us to Rajon Rondo, whose defensive role in this series will be nothing short of essential. Rick Carlisle managed to slow Harden slightly in recent meetings by matching up Rondo against Harden and maintaining a flexible, shifting pick-and-roll coverage to keep the MVP candidate off balance. Per NBA Savant, Harden shot just 4-of-12 from the field when Rondo was the nearest defender. He can’t take everything away from a player so skilled off the dribble, but Rondo is long and gutsy enough to take smart risks and deny open attempts. Couple his coverage with the help of Tyson Chandler and there’s an opportunity to at least make Harden’s work more challenging.

If that can be done, Dallas might have the means to swing the series. There are important variables to account for on the glass, the transition game, and Howard’s impact, but overall the Mavs have the right kinds of players to force the Rockets into uncomfortable situations.

Neither Jones nor Smith is an especially good foil for Nowitzki, whose shooting in this matchup should improve with adequate rest and preparation. Ariza will be shifted around to guard one perimeter threat or another, but either Ellis or Parsons can attack the opposite matchup at a point of relative weakness.

Dallas’ own plays in the passing lanes could also help pivot the series, as Houston ranks near the bottom of the league in turnover rate. A stalling Rockets offense or an isolating Harden sometimes force the action in ways that Rondo, Ellis, Parsons, Devin Harris, and Al-Farouq Aminu can exploit. Houston’s solid half-court defense can’t protect it from the redemption of steals for quick transition baskets.

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The X-Factor

Al-Farouq Aminu, Mavericks. Dallas can only afford to field so many players at a time without the threat of three-point range, making Aminu’s fit into this series an open question. That said, there’s no doubt that the Mavericks would benefit from his rebounding and flexible defense—both important in countering what the Rockets do best. Should the Mavs find sufficient opportunity to play Aminu (as in the regular season when they could get away with running small), he’d be a genuine help. If Houston can take advantage of his limited offense, however, Dallas could be locked into less preferable matchups.

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Telling Stat

18 minutes – The entirety of playing time logged by Dwight Howard during Houston’s four-game regular season series against Dallas. He’s likely to top that mark in Game 1 alone, and in doing so dramatically change the nature of the matchup to date.

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The Pick

Rockets in seven. Both teams have buttons to press, leaving this series a wide range of realistic outcomes. The most probable is a Rockets victory, in six or seven games, having weathered the full brunt of Carlisle’s tactics. ​ 

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