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

 

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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