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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Composite image by Jack Brame.

There's an elephant in the room when it comes to the Houston Texans. No, it's not Bill O'Brien. He's the ominous black cloud that hoovers over the whole building. That cloud is like a slow moving weather system that's constantly dumping rain and flooding the city. Eventually, it'll pass, we'll rebuild and recover from it.

It's not even the McNair family. Cal and Janice are the building itself. It exists, but needs people around and operating it in order for it to fully function. Sure, it could use some work. After all, it's almost twenty years old and could probably use a facelift. It happens when buildings age and are only taken care of or held to minimal standards.

The elephant in the room is Deshaun Watson. More specifically, his progress as a franchise/superstar quarterback. I've heard different people talk about this in one way, shape, form or whatever. AJ and Fred covered it on ESPN Houston's The Blitz. My friend @itsDanielBsr tweeted it and brought it up as well. There were others who talked about this topic, but these were the two places I encountered it in which I could pay closer attention.

When it comes to Watson, most people believe he's a great talent. However, there is a growing sentiment that it's time for him to take the next step. Watson turned 25 on September 14. He signed his four-year extension about a week before his birthday. When you're getting paid like a top quarterback and people recognize you as one of the better young quarterbacks, there comes a time when you need to poop or get off the pot.

When calling Watson to the carpet, people will call O'Brien into question. O'Brien is a factor in holding Watson back some. He's been the play-caller his whole time here in Houston up until this year when he allegedly turned it over to Tim Kelly. We've all seen how that has gone. O'Brien is also the general manager that traded away Watson's top target in DeAndre Hopkins. These type of things can hinder a young quarterback's growth and development, but at what point do we stop blaming O'Brien and start looking at Watson?

Some will point to the offensive line as a key factor as to why Watson isn't progressing. We've seen him escape sacks and create plays out of thin air. But when is it time to call him to the carpet for not going through his reads and/or making a check-down? He often escapes sacks and looks downfield, but should he be looking to scramble more often? Should he be reading progressions better? These intimate details are answers we won't ever get, but we hope we can understand that Watson is making his reads and decisions the way he's supposed to.

Whether it's his big extension, his bumbling idiot of a head coach, his lack of protection, or his lack of weapons, fans will eventually stop giving Watson a pass. Del said it best on ESPN Houston's The Bench: When will people stop bringing up Clemson when talking about Watson's greatness? NFL quarterbacks have their college career talked about in their rookie seasons. After that, it's all about what have you done for me lately. I sincerely hope Watson realizes his tremendous potential. He's a star now and a superstar in the making. The one thing that he needs is the success on the field that will catapult him into the upper echelon of the other top talents at his position. Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Pat Mahomes, Russell Wilson, and Lamar Jackson all have either a league MVP award and/or a Super Bowl ring. If Watson is to be mentioned in that rarefied air, he needs to start taking the necessary steps. The clock is ticking and people are watching. Your move Deshaun.

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