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.

 

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Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March. Photo via: NRG Park/Facebook

Football players, coaches and general managers have come and gone, but only one person has been running the business side of the Texans, well, even before they were the Texans. Jamey Rootes has been President of the Houston Texans since 1999, when an NFL team in Houston was still just a gleam in owner Bob McNair's eyes. That's before the team adopted the name "Texans" in 2000, before there was NRG Stadium, which opened as Reliant Stadium in 2000, and before they became serial champs of the AFC South, six titles between 2011-2019.

The precise date was Oct. 6, 1999 when NFL owners voted 29-0 to award the NFL's 32nd and newest franchise to Houston. Not only that, Houston was awarded the 2004 Super Bowl. Rootes, 34 years old with no NFL experience, had his work cut out for him. Before taking the job in Houston, Rootes was team president, general manager and CEO of selling peanuts and popcorn for the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer.

Major League Soccer, with all due respect, is not nearly a national obsession like the National Football League.

"I wasn't intimidated," Rootes said. "There's a quote that I love, 'Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.' I've always been a purpose-driven person. As for the step up to the NFL, I went from knowing nothing at the start of my time in Columbus to five years later thinking, OK, I've got this sports thing down. Actually, I had a very significant reduction in my responsibilities in Houston. When I was in Columbus, I ran the stadium, I ran the team's business, I was the general manager so I did the talent side of it, too. When I came to Houston, all I had to do was the business, so that was great."

Rootes has captured his remarkable journey from the soccer team at Clemson to grad school at Indiana University to the business world at IBM and Proctor & Gamble to the Clemson Crew, to ultimately being named President of the Houston Texans in his new book, The Winning Game Plan: A Proven Leadership Playbook for Continuous Business Success, available next week.

I've known Rootes from his day one with the Texans, but I still had to ask: everybody knows what the general manager does, and what the head coach does. What exactly does the President of an NFL team worth $3.3 billion do?

"I like to use the parallel of a pharmaceutical company to describe my job. There are two sides to that company. First you put scientists in one building and you leave them alone. They create products, which is what our football team is. The football side has a coach and general manager and all the people who prepare the team to play on Sunday. But getting that product to market is done by the business side, traditional business disciplines. Those are the things that fall to me. Basically, everything between the white lines is run by the football side. Everything outside of those lines, I do," Rootes said.

Between 1999 and 2002, when the Texans played their first game (let the record show the Texans defeated the Dallas Cowboy, 19-10), the team was essentially a massive start-up project. First orders of business for Rootes involved building a new stadium, developing relationships with suppliers, contractors and government officials, preparing for a Super Bowl and, most important, developing a relationship with fans.

Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March, but it's really an accumulation of lessons learned and behind-the-scenes stories about building the Texans from scratch into one of the most admired and valuable franchises in all of sports.

"I've always been a meticulous note-taker. I've kept every presentation I've ever done. I took all of my notes and concepts and put those down on paper," Rootes said. "To be a good leader, you need a wild imagination. You can show me a blank piece of paper, but I don't see it as blank. To me, it's a finished product that hasn't been created yet," Rootes said.

Rootes lays out his leadership strategy in seven chapters: Are You a Manager or a Leader, Get the Right People on Your Team, Build a Winning Culture, Create Raving Fans, a Winning Playbook for Adversity and Success, Your Leadership Playbook and Play to Win.

He learned lesson No. 1 the hard way. A friend once counseled Rootes, "your staff doesn't like the way you're all up in their business, you need to back off." Rootes took that advice to heart.

"It was an epiphany. I wasn't a leader. That's when I truly began thinking about leadership. I say this all the time, I don't do anything. All I do is create an environment where exceptional people can be their very best self. I know what's going on. I'm fully informed. I leave every game day exhausted. I get there early. I do the things I need to do. I kiss babies. I shake hands. I present checks. I entertain clients. I'm dialed in. It absolutely wears me out because I love this organization so much. I am so proud of what we've been able to do for this great city of Houston."

I asked Rootes, as someone who lives for Game Day and a packed NRG Stadium, are you devastated by 2020, the year of COVID-19 and small crowds limited by Centers for Disease Control guidelines?

"I don't look at it that way. I think there's a song by 10,000 Maniacs that said, these are the days that you'll remember. I told my staff, I know you're all going through hell right now, but later on in life, you'll talk about this year. Things that are important are memorable, for the positive and those things that leave a scar. You learn from adversity and you're a better person for enduring it. Victor Frankl said 'We can discover meaning in life in three different ways, by creating a work or doing a deed, experiencing something or encountering someone, and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.' Suffering is part of life. He should know, he survived a Nazi concentration camp," Rootes said.

H-E-B President Scott McClelland wrote the forward to The Winning Game Plan. Rootes dedicates the book to late Texans owner Bob McNair. Rootes' book is a fun read. All I kept thinking was, where was this book when I needed it? And before you buy too much into Rootes as a leader, consider that Rootes admits that he had to ask for wife Melissa's permission before he could accept the Texans job.

Personal note: I believe that a big part of leadership is the ability to keep a promise. Several years ago, I was riding my bicycle with my dog Lilly on a leash. It was the only way I could keep up with her. Well, one time Lilly saw a squirrel and pulled me off my bicycle. I tumbled a few times and rolled next to the curb. When I looked up, there was Jamey Rootes. I told him, "There's no need for you to tell anybody about this." He never said a word.

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