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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.
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.
With a new season on the horizon, the Astros have high hopes for 2024 after coming just one game shy of being in the World Series for three consecutive seasons.
If Houston wants to get back to the Fall Classic in 2024, they're going to have to rely on their pitching. Owner Jim Crane believes the club has 8 starting pitchers when Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers Jr. return mid-season.
Which allows several of the starters to move to the bullpen and provide even more depth. Add those guys to Bryan Abreu, Ryan Pressly, and Josh Hader and you have a recipe for success.
Check out the video above as ESPN Houston's Jeremy Branham goes through the entire staff and makes his case for the Astros having the best pitching staff in baseball.
You can listen to The Killer B's with Jeremy Branham and Joel Blank every weekday on ESPN 97.5 & 92.5 from 3 pm - 6 pm!