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.