LOOKING AHEAD

Rockets-Timberwolves round 1 playoff preview

James Harden and Chris Paul should make easy work of Minnesota. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

It only took 82 games for the playoff picture to be set, and as the Rio Grande Valley Vipers--I mean the Rockets bench tipped off against the Sacramento Kings, it was finally determined that Houston would be facing the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Timberwolves snapped a 14-year playoff drought with their win Wednesday night, and the reward for their efforts will be a Rockets team that didn't just sweep them in the regular season, they were blown out in almost every contest.

In four matchups the Rockets swept the Timberwolves, averaging 123 points per games to Minnesota's 107 points per game. As we await the start of the postseason, let's take a look at the position by position matchups.

Point Guard: Chris Paul versus Jeff Teague

Advantage: Houston

Chris Paul's ability to create his own shot commands opposing defenses to remain honest instead of shading over to shut James Harden down. Add in the fact that he's been creating shots for teammates long before Harden finished this season third in the league in assists, and you have a dangerous backcourt that can drive and score or rain it from deep.

Jeff Teague is a capable scorer but is used more as a facilitator in a lineup that features far more firepower in other positions.

Shooting Guard: James Harden versus Jimmy Butler

Advantage: Houston

Expect Jimmy Butler to get his during the series offensively, but he's not James Harden. Harden, a practical lock to secure his first MVP award, will be the deciding factor in not only this series, but the entire playoffs. Previous playoff appearances featuring a much more overused and exhausted Harden have left a bad taste in Rockets fans’ mouths, as his performance has tended to drop sharply. Much more attention has been paid to keeping his minutes down and focusing on rest, so this postseason should hopefully not be a repeat.

Either way, Jimmy Buckets doesn't take James Buckets in this matchup.

Small Forward: Trevor Ariza versus Andrew Wiggins

Advantage: Push

Minnesota's Andrew Wiggins definitely wins the athletic category running away, and his continued scoring ability development overshadows Ariza’s. Ariza, however is not meant to be the offensive focus of the Rockets. You point Ariza at a player, and Ariza shuts that player down defensively, while knocking down open threes created by Harden and Paul. Wiggins will score more than Ariza, but Ariza’s defensive presence will make up for it.

Power Forward: P.J. Tucker versus Taj Gibson

Advantage: Minnesota

P.J. Tucker is a stocky small forward whose relentless defense and three point shooting ability earned him the starting role over Ryan Anderson late in the season. Taj Gibson is a much more prototypical power forward, with a nasty defensive streak. So while Tucker may beat him on fast breaks and help stretch the defense, Gibson's size will be a lot for Tucker to handle. He'll have to channel his inner Chuck Hayes this series to help neutralize Gibson's above average inside presence.

Center: Clint Capela versus Karl Anthony-Towns

Advantage: Minnesota

Clint Capela has cemented himself as an integral part of what the Rockets do on both sides of the ball. He's an athletic center that understands his role offensively and serves as the Rockets’ primary post defender--a role he has excelled in this season. He is in essence a role player at this moment and on this team, but his presence is much more impactful than that term implies.

Karl Anthony-Towns, however, is an absolute freak of nature. Seemingly developed in a lab to embody the perfect center, KAT will be an absolute handful to contain. He's more athletic than most wings, and has the size and length to dominate the paint on both ends of the court. Capela will honestly only be expected to try his best, because KAT will be coming to Houston hungry.

Bench advantage: Houston

The Timberwolves have Jamal Crawford who is still a handful off the bench, but aside from that, the bench simply does not stand out.

The Rockets, even without Luc Mbah a Moute, feature plenty of firepower. Aside from reigning Sixth Man of the year, Eric Gordon, Houston will throw a scrappy Gerald Green, three-point threat Ryan Anderson, and the veteran center Nene--whom the Rockets have done their best to keep fresh for the postseason--at the Timberwolves for 48 minutes. This is where the Rockets will impose their will.

Verdict:

The Rockets are simply too talented and too deep to lose to this promising young Timberwolves team. From a position by position breakdown it may seem closer than it is, but the difference is that the positions that the Rockets are superior in, they are exponentially more superior.

Prediction: Rockets in five

 

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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