Sound smart for game one

The Rockets playoff guide for casual fans

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Congratulations, Houston. The second most disliked team in the league finally made it to the regular season finish line, drawing a first round showdown with the Utah Jazz in the process. Sunday night marks the start of the Rockets' quest to erase last season's heartbreaking postseason conclusion--one that still seems statistically impossible.

But we're not here to talk about that.

We're here to get primed for some sweet first-round playoff action, and once again I'm shouldering the burden of informing the sort of informed. I'm proud to present the preeminent Rockets Playoff Guide For Casual Fans.

How did the Rockets get here

The Rockets stumbled into an 11-14 record to start the season, leaving Rockets players and fans alike searching for answers. That answer came in the form of James Harden, who suddenly started seeing all of the codes in The Matrix and began breaking basketball. The Rockets would ride on the shoulders of their MVP candidate guard--in addition to a few key in-season free agent acquisitions--to finish 42-15, with an overall record of 53-29. A heartbreaking loss on the final night of the regular season dropped the Rockets from a potential second seed playoff berth to the fourth seed.

How did the Jazz get here

The Jazz started even slower than the Rockets, hovering near the bottom of the western conference standings with a 14-17 record. Anchored by a suffocating defense and young star Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz--sitting at 20-20--ripped off a 6-game win streak in early January and never looked back. The Jazz finished with a 50-32 record on the season.

Know your Rockets

James Harden - Superstar shooting guard. Reigning NBA MVP. Possibly the greatest isolation player in the history of basketball. Harden is frustratingly lethal from every spot on the court. If he's on the court, the offense will go through Harden. That offense usually consists of Harden breaking down his defender and either scoring easily, or finding an open player as a result of the opponent leaving their assignment to try and stop him. He's going to dribble a lot, he's going to miss a lot of threes, but he's also going to make a lot. James Harden is a player you either love or hate, there's no in between.

Chris Paul - Hall of Fame bound point guard. Paul is a legendary point guard in the twilight of his career. His ability to operate an offense is rivaled by very few. Paul is essentially the only Rocket allowed to shoot mid range shots, primarily because it's unguardable. He's also the guy in the State Farm commercials that you're going to see fifty times during the game, so that will be fun.

Eric Gordon - Small forward. Versatile scorer that can drive the lane and shoot from deep. Regarded as the Rockets' second best scoring option. Sometimes called "Splash Gordon," which is a play off of "Flash Gordon," which is a play off of, well, Eric Gordon. Seems a little too meta, but what do I know? Gordon looks like the kind of guy who would remind a teacher to pick up the homework you forgot to do after the dismissal bell rings.

PJ Tucker - Power forward. Bulldog defender with a lethal spot-up corner three shot. Tucker is the kind of player you love when he's on your team and can't stand when he's on the other team. By body language reaction alone, it is clear that PJ Tucker is the most unjustly officiated player in the history of basketball. As of January 29, PJ Tucker had worn over $100K in shoes on the court. So yeah. Dude's got a hobby.

Clint Capela - Center. Athletic 7-footer that can run the court and defend the paint. Capela will be on the receiving end of roughly 70,000 alley oops by the end of the first round of the playoffs, and those just never get old. Clint Capela comes off as the kind of guy that texts his mom after every game, and that's a good thing.

Know your enemy

Donovan Mitchell - Jazz star guard. Can score from anywhere. The Jazz will need him to play his best basketball if they're going to keep up with the Rockets. Wears number 45, which is weird. Has a kind face. Most likely Jazz player to be ID'd at a movie theater.

Ricky Rubio - Point guard. Veteran pass-first floor general. Dangerous when driving for a layup, not so dangerous from beyond the arc. Has been caught on the wrong end of a few James Harden cooking sessions. Looks like a guy that would recommend an album "you probably haven't heard of before," from a good second-hand vinyl shop. Also looks like a guy who has been talked out of getting dreads several different times.

Rudy Gobert - Center. Likely defensive player of the year once again. Gobert is 7' 1", has an albatross-like 7' 9" wingspan, and practically shuts down the paint single-handedly. Efficient scorer from around the rim. The "T" in Gobert is silent, which makes it the fanciest last name on the team. I've googled "Gobert in a beret," more times than anyone should. One day it will pay off.

Derrick Favors - Power forward. Defensive minded grinder. Averaged 12 points, 7 rebounds, and one block per game. I don't know, he's Derrick Favors. He's pretty boring.

Joe Ingles - Small forward. Wily veteran with deceptive scoring ability. Now when I say deceptive, what I mean is that Joe Ingles looks like he probably wouldn't be picked first in a pick-up game at Lifetime Fitness. His actual nickname is "Slow-mo Joe."

He's also my favorite.

When you shoot a career 40% from behind the arc, you don't have to be fast. They should call him "Quigley Down Under," instead because he's Australian, and a sharpshooter, and just as cool as Tom Selleck. Actually, that's a bad nickname, don't call him that. Prepare to be frustrated when the least athletic player on the court by a wide margin takes charges, spaces the court for Mitchell, and buries 3-pointers in everyone's faces. Once again, Joe Ingles is the best.

Prediction

The Jazz are a good team, but Houston is white hot. They'll run circles around Utah's slower interior bigs, drag them out to the three point line with offensive switches and fly by them for easy layups. When Utah tries to keep their bigs in the paint, Houston will rain threes from deep. I think Utah has enough fight to take one or two, but I expect the Rockets to glide into the second round without much issue.

Rockets in 6.

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A WEEKLY REVIEW OF CRENNEL'S COACHING

Now my job: Texans feast on Lions

Photo by Getty Images.

Thanksgiving is full of tradition. There's the typical family gathering, large meal, and of course, football. Sometimes, new traditions are added and old ones are retired. I think the Texans did both in their impressive 41-25 win over the Lions in Detroit. Old traditions were carried on (Lions losing on Thanksgiving), some were put to rest (Texans not being able to get turnovers), and new ones were started (multiple passing touchdowns by Deshaun Watson in six straight games).

The fact that this defense got three turnovers in the game was unbelievable! They got all three in the first quarter within the span of eight plays. JJ Watt's pick-six was insane. He went for a batted ball, ended up catching it, and ran it in. They forced Jonathan Williams to fumble on the Lions' very next play from scrimmage and recovered it. On the Lions' next possession, the Texans recovered yet another fumble after the challenge was reversed. Great call by the coaching staff to challenge and win. The defense looked good. Tyrell Adams stood out because he was in on those two fumbles, made 17 total tackles with 14 of them being solo tackles. They also brought pressure that seemed to make Matthew Stafford very inaccurate and resulted in four sacks. I give defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver credit for knowing he needs to blitz to get pressure, but the run defense has to improve.

The offense kept the tempo up in this game as well. The spread and hurry-up were used to keep the Lions already staggered defense off balance. Knowing the Lions were without a couple defensive backs, I thought it would be the perfect marriage of their defense and the Texans' offense. A buddy asked before the game about the line (Texans -3.5) and the over/under (52.5). I told him bet the Texans and the over because neither team can play defense and both have good quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Tim Kelly put together another good game plan and Watson executed it flawlessly. One route combo I saw later on in the game I particularly enjoyed. Two receivers were tight to the left side. Cooks ran a hook/curl and settled in the middle of the zone while Fuller ran a vertical route. Duke Johnson ran a swing route to that same side. It left Cooks wide open as the attention went to Johnson in the flat, Fuller deep, and the action to the other play side. Route combos are important because it gives the quarterback different reads as he goes through his progressions and lets him pick apart the defense based on what he sees. Combine that with Watson's play and the way Kelly has changed his play calling now that he's liberated from he who shall not be named, we're seeing a beautiful thing.

As good as things were, there's still room for improvement. The defense gives up way too many easy yards, both run and pass. They can't get pressure bringing only four and will often give up big plays if the blitz is picked up. Plus the run defense is still an issue as evidenced by the Lions' first possession of the second half. The Lions ran the ball 10 plays straight for a total of 58 yards on that drive. Utterly ridiculous! Watson was good (17/25 318 yards and four touchdowns), but he missed two more touchdowns with passes slightly off, and continues to hold onto the ball too long at times. The difference between these two issues I've presented here is the fact that Watson has so played well, his "issues" are minor and very correctable, while the defense is terrible and there's no easy fix in sight. But let Romeo Crennel and Anthony Weaver tell it, they're getting the most out of these guys and they're playing disciplined.

The thought that this team may actually creep into the playoff picture may take shape better after next week if they can beat the Colts. I doubt it, but it is getting interesting. Let's see what else happens around them because they need help getting there.

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