A week into the seeding games down in Disney, the quality of play has been very high. Almost all of the 22 teams are competitive on a nightly basis and have brought the drama to most contests. Such high-caliber hoops only shows up when the stakes are high and there's something worth playing for. The NBA gets credit for properly incentivizing all teams in the bubble, but the bloodbath of the standings before the shutdown has led to a frenetic pace in Orlando.
No place has been more of a bloodbath than the Western Conference. The Los Angeles Lakers clinched the top seed, but teams 2 through 7 are all jockeying for position with each other. Meanwhile, the race for 8 is wide open and could provide drama until the very last seeding games have been played.
Over the next week, we'll dive one by one into the main contenders to see which teams might give them the most difficult matchups in the postseason. Whether due to matchups, style of play, star power or teams trending upward, we'll dive into a list of who each team would like to avoid most.
Perhaps no team in the West has a higher variance of first-round matchups than the Houston Rockets. Three teams–the Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder and Utah Jazz–are all within a half-game of each other in the 4 thru 6 spots. A little cushion exists between them and the 7th-placed Dallas Mavericks, but the uncertainty of who between the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers jumps to the 2 means drama around the 6-seed.
Of the five teams the Rockets are plausibly facing in the first round, one of them provides the most anxiety with the matchups they negate.
Who They're Rooting Against: Los Angeles Clippers
Since the trade deadline departure of Clint Capela, the Rockets have leaned into full-time small ball. PJ Tucker, who is 6'5", has moved as their full-time 5. James Harden and Russell Westbrook, as dynamic an offensive duo as there is, create on offense while three smaller spot-up shooters surround them. Robert Covington has been a great addition for his stellar defense and productive shooting, while guys like Danuel House, Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, Jeff Green and DeMarre Carroll fill out the rotation with sixth man Eric Gordon.
The idea behind playing this was was simple. Most teams were allowing 3-point attempts if desired on high volume, which Houston wanted. By trading those threes for twos, which would be hunted by their opponent due to size mismatches created by Houston's lack of height and switch-heavy scheme, Houston bet they could outscore opponents who went bigger against them.
Problem with the Los Angeles Clippers is they willingly don't get much offense from the 5. Ivica Zubac, who starts at center, plays only 18 minutes per night. Montrezl Harrell, a former Rocket and an athletic 6'7", gets closer to 28 minutes off the bench and is perfectly designed with his speed and size to thwart Houston going small. If Doc Rivers desires, he can throw JaMychal Green or Patrick Patterson at the 5 and have floor-spacing 3-point shooters without any defensive liabilities against perimeter threats.
Houston is also all to familiar with the defensive impact in a postseason series of Patrick Beverley. The pitbull defender at the point of attack would likely draw the Harden assignment and seek to frustrate Houston's top scorer. Putting him there would allow one of Paul George or Kawhi Leonard to rest on the wings while the other played a more sagging-based style on non-shooter Westbrook.
The entire series on the other end would revolve around the Clippers forcing switches to isolate one of Leonard or George. Houston doesn't have many defenders who are weak in the post one-on-one but the impact of an elite defender like Covington gets mitigated when he's able to be removed schematically from a top matchup.
This Clippers team is really deep behind their top two wings and great bench scorers like Lou Williams and Harrell. Houston is a numbers-based team. They want to outscore opponents, force teams to hunt mismatches for two-point attempts and bank on Harden wearing them down throughout the game. But there may be too many good defensive options the Clippers can throw at Harden, and too little advantage of leaning into small ball for Houston, to pull off the first-round upset.
A matchup with Utah or Oklahoma City, who boast true centers with non-shooting chops on high volume and aren't elite back-to-basket scorers, would be beneficial. Even Denver, where Tucker is a unique foil to Nikola Jokic's inside-out offensive approach, matches well. But the Clippers aren't the team Houston is designed to beat. That would make for a unique challenge in front of Mike D'Antoni and his squad.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).