#2 – Houston Rockets
Houston went 3-1 against Dallas on the year, but outscored the Mavericks by only four points total. The key here, however, was Dwight Howard’s availability – he missed three of these contests and was limited in the fourth. Howard will be a force down low; an expected heavy dose of pick-and-roll with James Harden and Howard may keep Tyson Chandler from affecting as much of the game defensively as he often does. Howard will also provide a much-needed dose of interior defense against an attacking presence like Monta Ellis.
There are justifiable questions as to how Harden’s somewhat predictable game translates to the pace and intensity of the playoffs, but it’s hard to see him being too exposed against the Mavs. Unlike other possible Rockets opponents Memphis (Tony Allen) or San Antonio (Kawhi Leonard), Dallas lacks a shutdown perimeter defender to force Harden outside his comfort zone. Lineups featuring both Chandler and Dirk Nowitzki will have trouble defending four-out Houston units with the likes of Terrence Jones, even if the Mavs know exactly what’s coming with repeated Harden attacks. The loss of Donatas Motiejunas hurts for Houston, but not enough to slow down their offense too badly against Dallas.
The Rockets have been low-key excellent defensively all year, and how they choose to match up with Nowitzki will be interesting. Jones is mobile and can potentially bother Dirk pick-and-pops, and may see extended time if he can do enough to bother Nowitzki in the high post. Howard may see duty also, as the damage Chandler can do against Jones is likely limited.
#7 – Dallas Mavericks
The Mavs have sputtered into the playoffs after a torrid start to the year, particularly offensively. They went just 16-14 over their final 30 games, and were just 21st in the NBA for per-possession net rating in this time.
Rajon Rondo hasn’t been beneficial at all for Dallas after a midseason trade, and his total inability to space the floor will empower a Houston defense that’s been leaning heavily on these sorts of opponent weaknesses with success all year long. He’ll have to truly return to his form of postseasons past to be a positive on the court, which seems unlikely despite his comments recently to that effect.
How Chandler Parsons fares will be important for the Mavs; it’s tough to see them posing a legitimate challenge to Houston if he can’t thoroughly outplay Trevor Ariza. He shot nearly 40 percent from deep in the four matchups with the Rockets this year on nearly six attempts per game, and the Mavs need him at this level again. They may find small units with Parsons at the four is their best chance at goosing the offense if they get down a big number at any point.
But really, for Dallas to have a puncher’s chance at an upset, they need Playoff Dirk. Nowitzki has seemingly been saving his legs for the postseason, and when he’s on his game, Houston has no effective matchup for him defensively. He can override Rondo’s lack of spacing and spread things out for Ellis to get to the hoop, and could at least keep things interesting if he’s in peak form.
Who Wins Game 1?
The Rockets take Game 1 in routine fashion.
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