NBA Playoffs Preview: Rockets vs. Mavericks

After a tight race with the Spurs, the Rockets snuck away with the 2 seed in the West, but can they get past a Mavs team chasing one more ring for Dirk?

After a tumultuous final week that could have seen them land anywhere from the 2 seed to the 6 seed, the Houston Rockets have secured the 2 seed in the West, setting up a first-round series with the Dallas Mavericks. This matchup pits a younger team looking to make its first deep playoff run with this core and one of the old stalwarts of the Western Conference trying to extend its own championship window.

Former players from both teams play big parts on both sides with Jason Terry and Corey Brewer, key cogs from Dallas' last championship run, playing big parts off the bench for Houston, while Chandler Parsons, who started his career with the Rockets, is in the starting lineup for Dallas.

With the swapping of role players and free agency battles, this Southwestern Division rivalry has gotten a much more personal feel to it recently.

The Mavs run a balanced offense with the fifth-ranked Offensive Rating in the league at 109.5, according to our power rankings, while the Rockets sit all the way back at 11th when you narrow the field of comparison down to just playoff teams. Houston's Offensive Rating was 107.0 this year.

But Houston's Defensive Rating (103.4) ranked eighth during the regular season, and Dallas's Defensive Rating (106.4) ranked 20th. And that defensive discrepancy was with former Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard missing literally half the season.

How, then, will the battle of these Texas squads unfold? Let's break down the numbers.

Houston Rockets (2)

Record: 56-26
nERD: 59.1
Championship Odds: 3.5%

Dallas Mavericks (7)

Record: 50-32
nERD: 60.9
Championship Odds: 2.5%

Regular Season Series - Rockets 3, Mavericks 1

The Rockets took the regular season series and did most of it without Dwight Howard. They won the first two meetings as well as the final matchup two weeks ago by an average of just 5.0 points. The lone Mavericks victory was the most lopsided game between the two of the season: a 111-100 win on February 20.

Not surprisingly, James Harden shouldered a good chunk of the scoring, averaging 24.8 points per game to go with 6.0 rebounds and 5.8 assists in the four games against their in-state opponent. As Howard played a whopping total of 18 minutes, Harden made his presence felt attempting 15.3 field goals per game, knocking them down at a 44.3% rate.

Also, similarly to most nights during the regular season, Harden found his way to the charity stripe against Dallas pretty frequently, averaging 10.3 free throw attempts per game, hitting those at an 85.4% clip. None of those numbers should be too surprising, as they all fall extremely close to Harden's season averages.

Points came much more evenly for the Mavericks, much as they did all season, but Monta Ellis was the main point-scorer for the team (20.3 per game) when they played the Rockets. The sample taken from their only win in this regular season series exemplifies the principles used to get Dallas to 50 wins this year, as well as what might be necessary for them to win this series: eight players scored in double figures and the two who tied for the team lead with 17 points apiece, Al-Farouq Aminu and Devin Harris. Both came off the bench.

How the Rockets Can Win

The Rockets set the NBA record for made three pointers this season with 933. As a team, they shot 34.8% from deep. Houston will need to keep knocking them down from outside to win this series. The Rockets finished sixth in points per game at 103.9 during the regular season, but Dallas is actually ahead of them, ranking third with 105.2 points per game.

Teams that depend on the three-point shot always run the risk of getting in trouble if they go cold for a few games in a series, but when you hit the most long balls of any team ever in the regular season and face one of the top offenses, the repercussions of having poor shooting nights can be even greater.

Still, at 25th in the league at 102.3 points allowed per game, the threat Dallas gets from the very potent Houston offense is very real. If they can't stop Harden and the fast paced Rockets (who are second in the league at 96.5 possessions per 48 minutes), then Houston will be able to play its game until the threes fall and take advantage of the Dallas defense with the fastbreak.

Rockets Player to Watch - Dwight Howard

As a bona fide superstar who missed a good chunk of the regular season and finished out the year on some strict minutes restrictions, what Howard can do in this series is both highly debatable and potentially extremely important to the outcome. The first game of the series, Howard will have his minutes capped at 32, which is his highest since returning after missing more than two months. The biggest things an extended Howard presence provides is both defensive interior help as well as some offensive production on the block to help the aforementioned shooters on Houston find some room.

The Rockets are 7.0 points better in Offensive Rating and 4.7 points better in Defensive Rating with Howard on the floor this season. Howard played only 31% of the total minutes this season, so if he sits at the 32-minute mark in each game, he'll be on the floor for 66% of the playoff minutes. His defensive presence could prove to be a difference maker in the series.

How the Mavericks Can Win

The Mavericks' biggest keys will be offensive balance and what they're able to do on the defensive end.

As noted earlier, the Rockets have the ability to push the pace against Dallas' rather generous defense, but there is a way that Dallas can turn the tables on Houston's uptempo approach: secure turnovers.

The Rockets had one of the worst turnover percentages in the league (15%), which ranked 28th this year. Meanwhile, the Mavericks are fourth in defensive turnover percentage at 14.7%. The Rockets' turnover woes are an even bigger concern since point guard Patrick Beverley went down for the season after tearing ligaments in his left wrist in March.

Harden has been both the facilitator and primary scorer for the year, but with the ball in his hands that much, he also coughed it up to the tune of 4.0 turnovers per game. If the Rockets can't hold onto the ball and knock down shots from the outside, then the series won't be too much fun for Houston fans.

Dallas can't just look to Dirk Nowitzki or Monta Ellis to produce points in this series, of course. If we look back at their win against the Rockets in February featuring balanced scoring, we see the blueprint for their success in this first-round matchup. If the scoring stays balanced and the Mavs share the rock (they averaged 22.5 assists per game on the season, eighth in the NBA), they will have a chance to keep up and pull the upset.

Mavericks Player to Watch - Rajon Rondo

The task of keeping that offense balanced, with some fairly hungry mouths to feed between Ellis, Dirk and Parsons, will fall on the point guard Dallas acquired from Boston in December. With some obvious scoring deficiencies and a questionable relationship with coaching staff after some in game blowups, how Rajon Rondo performs this postseason may have a huge impact on both the series and his future with the team. His primary function will be, as has been the case in much of Rondo's career when on teams not tanking for the lottery, will be to facilitate and rack up assists.

Rondo has averaged 6.5 assists in his 46 games played in since coming to Dallas and has assisted on 34.0% of the teams made field goals while he was on the floor. He has to keep the offense running smoothly, but that might not always come in the form of direct assists.

Rondo is averaging just 9.3 points per game since coming to Dallas, which is actually higher than the 8.3 he was holding up in Boston at the start of the season. If the Rockets play off Rondo and let him have shots, he will find it more difficult to find open guys to rack up assists. Rondo has been known to sabotage an offense to get assists before (he averaged 10.8 assists per game prior to the trade to Dallas on a 10-14 Celtics team that is now in the playoffs), but assuming the Rockets give him more room to work to cover the scorers he's looking for, it will be imperative that he look for the pass-to-assist opportunities that will create more open looks for everyone on the floor.

Series Prediction

This series has the potential to turn into an old-fashioned southwestern shootout. Harden, fired up by what will likely be a runner-up finish in the MVP voting, might go into takeover mode late in some close games. Expect him to be bested by some clutch late shooting from Dirk and Ellis a time or two -- and Parsons could make a big shot somewhere along the line -- but I think ultimately the Rockets will pull this out, only to go out of the frying pan into the fire to face the winner of the Clippers-Spurs series

According to our algorithms: Rockets are 52.92% favorites.

My final prediction: Rockets in seven.