COULD is the operative word in this post. As you will discover, there is a very long list of outcomes that must happen to set up a Rockets Finals berth. Let’s start with their first round series.
I wasn’t looking forward to a first round match-up with the Jazz. I was actually hoping to open against the Phoenix Suns. The Jazz are nearly unbeatable in Utah. Still, these Rockets became road warriors, particularly during their 22-game winning streak. The main thing to look for in this series is whether the Rockets can hold homecourt. If they can do that, they walk into the second round. It’ll be difficult because Rafer Alston is going to miss the first two games. Still, I am curious to see what Luis Scola does in the playoffs. I have a feeling we may see something special from our Rookie of the Year candidate once the playoffs tip off in Houston tonight.
With any team in the playoffs, drawing the right match-ups can make the difference between a championship and elimination. The Rockets’ best shot in the second round would be the Phoenix Suns, and that’s not a sure thing. However, if the Suns make it to the second round, that means the Spurs, a team we cannot beat in the playoffs, has been knocked out. The Rockets would also have homecourt over the Suns. In order to draw the Suns in the second round, we would also need the Mavericks to knock out the New Orleans Hornets; this is the likeliest outcome of this entire scenario. The Mavs match-up very well with the Hornets, and they are really looking to make some noise after last season’s first round debacle against the Warriors. I would have enjoyed the irony of the Mavs/Hornets being a #1 seed vs. #8 seed.
With a presumptive Lakers win, that would set up a second round of the Lakers vs. Mavericks and Rockets vs. Suns. I actually like the Rockets chances against the Suns. Part of that comes from the fact that the Rockets handled the Suns in their final match-up of the season. I also think that the Suns, with Shaq, are an intriguing match-up for this Houston team. Ironically, the Suns traded for O’Neal in order to get that big man in the middle to battle with the other Western Conference big men. I think that strategy will be their downfall against the Rockets. The Rockets will be a faster team, but they will have something that the Suns never had when they were the fastest team in the Conference, and that’s defense. The Rockets greatest strength is also the greatest asset for playoff basketball. If they can play inspired defense, the Suns will set in the second round.
Between the Lakers and Mavericks, I am not sure which team the Rockets would prefer. Playing the Mavs would put us in the Western Conference Finals with homecourt. Playing the Lakers is just a fun match-up. In either case, I believe that were the Rockets to make it this far in the playoffs, all bets are off, and momentum will drive the series. I truly believe that if Tracy McGrady can get the first round monkey off his back, he’ll be a monster. Lebron James made it to the Finals last year with a less talented team. Of course, he plays in the Eastern Conference. Still, with the right set of breaks, I do believe these Rockets can make it to the NBA Finals.
Can they beat the Boston Celtics; the consensus favorite in the East? I’ll check back with you in June.