The Southwest Division is brutal. All five teams have made it to the postseason, and two of them will square off in the first round when the Rockets face the Mavericks on a Texas showdown. Houston survived injuries to key players to secure the No. 2 seed, while the Mavericks slid all the way to seven thanks to their inconsistent play after the NBA All-Star break.
Off-court story lines abound in this matchup, as Houston GM Daryl Morey and Mavericks' owner Mark Cuban don't like each other and the signing of Chandler Parsons looms large. Yet, the on-court product should be even better.
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The Rockets have sustained one of the best defenses in the league even without Dwight Howard for long stretches. Offensively, they rely heavily on Harden, who has been able to carry a huge offensive load while remaining efficient. If the Rockets were healthy, they would probably win this series easily thanks to their superior individual talent. Injuries to Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas, however, have severely reduced their depth. Houston is still the better team, but the gap might not be as big as the seeding indicates.
For the Mavericks to have a chance, they will need to find someone to contain Harden. Neither Monta Ellis nor Chandler Parsons are good enough defenders to do it and Rajon Rondo would be giving up inches and pounds. Offensively, the Mavericks are one of the best teams in the league, featuring multiple scoring threats in the starting lineup and the bench. Dirk Nowitzki has been playing better lately and he remains one of the toughest covers in the league.
Still, it's hard to see Dallas stringing together enough stops to win four out of seven games unless Rick Carlisle performs his magic.
- Rockets (56-26, expected record 50-32) vs. Mavericks (50-32, expected record 49-33)
- Rockets' offensive efficiency: 104.2 | Mavericks' offensive efficiency: 107.2
- Rockets' defensive efficiency: 100.5 | Mavericks' defensive efficiency: 103.7
- Season series: 3-1 Rockets. The Rockets took three close games, while the Mavericks were more convincing in their one win.
4 questions that'll decide this series
1. What is your team's biggest advantage in this series?
The Dream Shake: James Harden. The Mavericks don't have anyone that can truly guard him -- unless the version of Rajon Rondo that guarded LeBron James in the playoffs years ago resurfaces -- which is death for a Rockets opponent. Harden will be able to get his own shots at will, and if the Mavericks collapse around him, he'll be able to find shooters.
Mavs Moneyball: The Mavericks roster is chock full with one-way players of Harvey Dent proportions, beloved for their play on one end of the court and severely lacking on the other. But even before Patrick Beverley and Donatas Montiejunas suffered season-ending injuries, the Rockets clearly had the least number of crippling matchup problems for Dallas. In Joey Dorsey and Jason Terry, Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis now have places to hide their defensive deficiencies. Especially with Rick Carlisle's genius, the Mavericks can progress through this series without facing glaring mismatches at every turn.
2. What is your team's biggest disadvantage in this series?
The Dream Shake: Free throw shooting. Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle has been known to employ the "Hack-a-Howard" strategy, except the Rockets have three big men in Dwight Howard, Josh Smith and Joey Dorsey who all shoot 53 percent or worse from the free throw line. Any game can be fundamentally changed by the Rockets' inability to get free points from the charity stripe.
Mavs Moneyball: The Rockets lead the NBA in three-point makes and shoot them indiscriminately, something the Mavericks can't keep up with if they're going in. Although every game was close, Houston took full advantage of that firepower in the 3-1 season series, making 19 more three-pointers combined across the four games. Since trading for Rajon Rondo, Dallas' spacing is tighter and those quality looks behind the arc are harder and harder to find.
3. Who is the X-Factor that needs to step up?
The Dream Shake: Dwight Howard. He is the ultimate X-Factor for the Rockets. He's capable of physically dominating and taking over a game, like he did multiple times in last year's playoffs. But he's also capable of disappearing and hampering the team's rapid-motion offense. If he plays well, it's hard envisioning a scenario where the Rockets lose.
Mavs Moneyball: Much of the Mavericks' success hinges on whether we'll have a sighting of the fabled "Playoff Rondo" this series. He'll draw the initial and primary task of slowing down MVP-candidate James Harden. This is why the Mavericks brought him to Dallas, after all.
4. What is your prediction?
The Dream Shake: Rockets in six. This is the matchup Rockets fans have been hoping to get for months. The Mavericks have a mediocre defense and their best players don't match up well with Houston. Tyson Chandler and Dwight Howard may cancel each other out, but Terrence Jones is going to give Dirk Nowitzki fits on both ends of the floor, Trevor Ariza should handle Chandler Parsons and James Harden will do MVP-type things. Carlisle's coaching will win the Mavs a couple games, but not the series.
Mavs Moneyball: Rockets in seven. This is a winnable series for Dallas, and perhaps if Chandler Parsons was healthy, I'd be willing to take the Mavericks. Since questions persist about a knee injury, however, it's best to pick the Rockets and their ever-important home court advantage in what promises to be a very tight and fun first round series.
The Dream Shake
SCHEDULE (all times ET)
Game 1: Saturday, April 18. Toyota Center, Houston TX. 9:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 2: Tuesday, April 21. Toyota Center, Houston TX. 9:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 3: Friday, April 24. American Airlines Center, Dallas TX. 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Game 4: Sunday, April 26, American Airlines Center, Dallas TX. 9:30 p.m. (TNT)
Game 5 (if necessary): Tuesday, April 28, Toyota Center, Houston TX. TBA.
Game 6 (if necessary): Thursday, April 30, American Airlines Center, Dallas TX. TBA.
Game 7 (if necessary): Saturday, May 2. Toyota Center, Houston TX. TBA.