PLAYOFF PREVIEW

Here are 4 keys for the Rockets in tonight's Game 1 against Minnesota

Clint Capela has to stay out of foul trouble. Jason Miller

The Houston Rockets kick off their 2018 playoff campaign tonight at 8 pm against Karl Anthony-Towns and the eighth seeded Minnesota Timberwolves. After a regular season sweep of the Timberwolves, the Rockets enter this first round of the playoffs heavily favored to advance. These presumptions are based primarily off of the perceived superiority of Houston's backcourt, experience, and depth; but as we've all seen in the NBA playoffs, nothing is guaranteed.

The overall blueprint for the Rockets is simple enough for even the most casual fan to remember and recite: get the ball to James Harden, stop them on defense, and then get the ball back to James Harden. And while this has proven to be a very effective, albeit primitive tactic, there are a few other factors that are going to prove integral to Houston starting out 1-0 against a hungry Minnesota team motivated by the return of shooting guard Jimmy Butler. Here are a few keys to tonight's matchup:

Key #1: Keep Clint Capela out of foul trouble

If there is a foul in the paint, I want to see four other hands raised trying to take the blame. Capela is tasked with weathering hurricane Karl Anthony-Towns, and being the most capable Rocket, it will take a concerted effort to avoid foul trouble. KAT can make practically every shot from inside, in addition to possessing the ability to finish through contact and make his free throws. Capela won't be able to stop KAT completely, but he's far and away Houston's best chance at slowing him down. He can't do that from the bench, however.

Key #2: Force Jimmy Butler to pass

If Minnesota is going to have a chance against the Rockets, it's going to be because of a strong inside performance from KAT coupled with a strong outside performance from Jimmy Butler that forces Houston to respect both players and stretch their defense. While the Timberwolves have other capable options in the backcourt,  their offense will focus on getting Butler the ball. Houston's defense is very switch heavy, so whoever they match up with at the beginning of a half court set is rarely who they end up guarding at the end of the play. That said, it's important that whoever ends up on Butler forces him to pass--and preferably not to KAT. If the Rockets can make Butler pick up his dribble and rely on his supporting cast to produce, Houston should run away with this series.

Key #3: Keep up the tempo

A Rockets team that runs is a Rockets team that wins. Houston will force Minnesota to play small ball, largely in part due to P.J. Tucker’s ability as a wing to guard larger forwards while also stretching the court from beyond the arc. It's an overall mismatch as a result, but if Minnesota wants to steal a win or two, they'll need to somehow force the Rockets to slow down and play half court basketball where they'll rely on KAT to overwhelm. Other big-man reliant teams like the Pelicans have given Houston trouble this season, so it's not completely out if the realm of possibility. Their backcourt was lights out in those meetings however, and asking any team in the league to keep up with the Rockets’ impending 3-point assault is a fool's errand. If Houston can avoid getting bogged down in half court basketball and force fast break transition points, they'll be fine.

Key #4: The bench needs to maintain

The main reason Houston is so heavily favored in this matchup is because of how deep their bench goes. Even without the stalwart defense from Luc Mbah a Moute due to injury, the Rockets will trot out reigning sixth man of the year, Eric Gordon, as well as veteran center Nene, who has been virtually saran-wrapped all season to keep him fresh and ready to terrorize backup bigs. Add in the sharpshooting maverick renegade named Gerald Green, and stretch big Ryan Anderson, who can nail shots from five feet or more beyond the arc, and you're looking at one if the deepest benches in the league. Barring a legendary coming out party from one of the Timberwolves’ bench players, they simply don't match up. All that Houston's bench needs to do is simply maintain. Stay healthy, provide what they've been consistently providing, and The Rockets move on to round two.

 

Deshaun Watson takes his act to New York. Tim Warner/Getty Images

The Texans Saturday play a lousy 4-9 Jets team Saturday now without its leading rusher (Isaiah Crowell) and leading pass catcher (Quincy Enunwa). Then they face a probably Carson Wentz-less Eagles team seeing its Super Bowl championship defense die away. Then the awful Jaguars come to Houston. 12-4 is right there for the Texans, but that will only be enough for the number three seed in the AFC and a Wild Card weekend home game unless the fading Steelers rise up Sunday to knock off the Patriots. That game is in Pittsburgh. The Patriots' final two games are both at home against the Bills and Jets.

With the Patriots losing their game to the Miami Miracle, on one hand you can say the Texans blew a massive opportunity in losing at home to the Colts. On the other hand the Colts were clearly the better team in ending the Texans' nine game winning streak.

The loss to Indy was a reality check. The Texans are a pretty good team, but glaring areas of weakness keep it from being a reeeeally good team. The offensive line is flat lousy in pass protection, though sometimes Deshaun Watson makes it look even worse by holding on to the ball too long. Pending free agent moves in the offseason, one of the Texans' top two draft picks next spring MUST be spent on an offensive lineman, the other on a cornerback (if not on another o-lineman). Even in their zone-heavy scheme, the Texans lack corners who run well enough. If the pass rush isn't raising hell, the secondary is Swiss cheesy. Remember, the Texans have an extra second pick this spring, acquired from Seattle in last year's Duane Brown trade.

If somehow the Texans chump up two of their remaining three games, as long as one of the losses isn't to the Jaguars they still win the AFC South even if the Titans or Colts win out.

Coogs' house

None of the Phi Slama Jama era Houston Cougar basketball teams started a season better than 5-0. Sunday Kelvin Sampson's Coogs go for a Bo Derek (perfect 10, anybody remember Bo?) start. Only UH team ever to open 10-0: the Elvin Hayes-led '67-'68 squad that went 31-0 and along the way beat UCLA in the Game of the Century before the Bruins obliterated the Cougars at the Final Four.

The new Fertitta Center is a modest-sized gem, and currently offers the hands down best sports environment in town. Non-Cougars are never going to embrace UH in big numbers especially not in a major league sports town, so UH's "For the City" slogan doesn't hit the mark. But so what? Drawing more of the Cougar base, plus any outside of it who might have some interest piqued by intensely played quality college basketball is good enough.

Rockets rumors

The Rockets have been vastly less excitement-inducing this season, though James Harden's closing brilliance in a 50 point explosion Thursday night to put away the Lakers was a doozy. Getting back to and then over ,500 is the Rockets' near term goal. A good month of sustained quality play is needed to restore credibility. Chris Paul's overall level of play remains a serious concern. The rumor this week of their interest in Cleveland malcontent J.R. Smith, egads! That would render Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey Desperate Daryl. Morey is trying to recover from his awful offseason, but I can't believe he sees J.R. Smith as worthwhile.

Speaking of Morey's offseason work, the Rockets Saturday gain the right to trade Carmelo Anthony. What a bonanza must await in return!

Astros still armed

Not a great look for the Astros that they tugged on their purse strings while the Tampa Bay Rays of all teams guaranteed Charlie Morton $30 million dollars over the next two years. The Astros did not err. Morton was on balance outstanding in his two Astro seasons but he wore down badly this year, and at 35 years old his arm is a ticking bomb. The Astros should add an established starting pitcher, but even if Jeff Luhnow doesn't, the Collin McHugh/Brad Peacock/Josh James/Framber Valdez quartet isn't an indefensible plan to cover three rotation spots while waiting on elite prospect Forrest Whitley's arrival during the 2019 season. If poor performance/injuries are issues, nothing precludes a notable in-season trade. That Verlander fellow worked out okay a couple of seasons ago. A left handed hitter is the obvious other logical Astros' target.

Buzzer Beaters

1. Pipe down Tony La Russa. Harold Baines making the Baseball Hall of Fame is ridiculous. 2. La Russa also used to lambaste those who dared to believe that Mark McGwire might have been a steroid guy. 3. Best teams in the AFC: Bronze-Patriots Silver-Chargers Gold-Chiefs (but barely post-loser Kareem Hunt).

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