Posted by Neil Paine on April 17, 2009
Regular Season: It started with such promise. The additions of Ron Artest & Brent Barry, the belief that this was the year that both Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady would be healthy and productive for the playoffs... GM Daryl Morey had gone all-in, and it was championship or bust. Unfortunately, Artest had a miserable first half, T-Mac hurt himself again (shelving him for the season and putting his career in jeopardy), Barry didn't play much, and the Rockets blew a shot at the #2 seed in the West on the final night of the regular season, losing the precious home-court advantage and relegating themselves to a 1st-round date with the dangerous Trail Blazers in the process.
Prime-Time Players: 1. Yao Ming. Yao is the focal point of everything the Rockets do, especially now that McGrady has been out of the lineup for months. He's the NBA's best center, and he managed to stay healthy and play 77 games in 2009, his most since '05. He gives you the night-in, night-out consistency you need to succeed in the postseason, and can occasionally explode, as he did in the 1st Round of the 2005 playoffs.
2. Ron Artest. Artest has keyed their defense (the strength of the team) all season, and has played much better on offense in the 2nd half as well. He's traditionally been a solid playoff performer as well, but he must stay focused and play to his strengths within his role on the team if the Rockets are to succeed.
3. The Role Players, specifically Shane Battier & Luis Scola. They aren't the biggest names on this roster, but they make big contributions on a nightly basis, whether in rebounding, defense, or offensive efficiency. These are the kinds of players that championship teams are made up of.
But don't count on... Their ability to create quality chances late in games. Yao is great, but it's too easy to double him and front him in the post, effectively limiting his impact when the Rockets want to force-feed him the ball. With McGrady gone, the creating duties fall to Artest or Aaron Brooks, but both have struggled to score consistently in clutch situations all season. The Rockets will have to solve this problem if they expect to go anywhere in the postseason.
Why they can win: Depth, defense, and a quality big man have long been key ingredients to championship-caliber teams. You just can tell that the construction of this roster has been based on the blueprints of past NBA Champions.
Why they can't win: The aforementioned "go-to guy" problem. Plus a lack of home-court advantage, and the Blazers & Lakers looming in their immediate future. It's going to be a killer road to the title.
X-Factor: Winning the battle at the 3-point line. The Rockets outscored their opponents at the 3-point line by nearly 6 points per game during the regular season, good for 5th in the NBA.
|Rockets vs.||Off.||Def.||Reb.||Coach||Exp.||The Skinny||Prediction|
|Dallas||X||X||X||Houston avenges '05 defeat||Rockets in 5|
|Denver||X||X||X||X||Defense is the order of the day as Rockets take series||Rockets in 6|
|Los Angeles||X||Not enough offense to carry them past L.A.||Lakers in 5|
|New Orleans||X||X||X||X||Houston's D contains CP3 just long enough to win||Rockets in 6|
|Portland||X||X||X||Offense vs. Defense. Close series determined by home-court||Blazers in 7|
|San Antonio||X||X||X||Houston wins by being more Spurs-esque than San Antonio||Rockets in 6|
|Utah||X||X||Push||Third time's the charm?||Rockets in 7|
(Key: "X" = Advantage; blank = disadvantage)