When the NBA regular season concluded Wednesday, the Houston Rockets jumped from the fifth seed in the Western Conference to the second, won their first division title since Michael Jordan took his baseball hiatus, and earned a first-round matchup with the seventh-seeded Dallas Mavericks.
Houston won three of four regular season games against the Mavericks, all by single digits—Dallas’s win was by 11 points. Houston is plus-18 in fourth quarters against its in-state rival, which is interesting if only because the Rockets are No. 21 in fourth quarter scoring while the Mavericks are No. 10.
The glaring challenge for Rick Carlisle and his team is the arduous task of keeping James Harden—who very well could be named this season’s MVP—in check. This is the issue, though: Harden’s skill set creates terrifying situations for opponents. He has torched six teams for 40 or more points, registered 21 double-doubles (most among shooting guards) and has been held to fewer than 10 points twice this season.
“Right now, there’s nobody playing better basketball on the planet,” Carlisle said of Harden in January. “We have a lot of guys knowing where he’s at. We have to create crowds. We have to throw a lot of different guys at him. It’s a major, major part of the game plan.”
Realistically, it should be Dallas’s entire game plan, and it starts with Rajon Rondo.
In the first meeting between the teams, in late November, Chandler Parsons, Jameer Nelson (who has since been traded) and Monta Ellis defended Houston’s dynamo. It didn’t work, which is why when Rondo was traded to the Mavericks Carlisle switched the hard-nosed, long-armed defender onto him.
Harden averaged 24.8 points, six rebounds, 5.8 assists, 44.3 percent shooting and an offensive rating of 115 against the Mavericks this season. In their four meetings, Harden shot a higher clip from beyond the arc compared with his season average, but shot a lower figure on long two-point field goals—which is, coincidentally, what gives General Manager Daryl Morey migraines. Though the sample size is small, pushing Harden away from the paint (where he draws copious free throws) and the top of the key is Dallas’s best option.
When viewing Harden’s assist chart against Dallas, you can see that Rondo is looking to keep him away from the top of the circle, thus cutting off a number of avenues to the rim.
Watch any of Harden’s explosive outputs this season and you’ll see him manipulate a pick-and-roll defender into collapsing or overplaying. He’s the matador of the NBA, and bursts through the seams of the lane into the maw of the defense with ease. Harden has created 636 points on drives this season, nearly 100 more points than anyone else; he relentlessly attacks the basket, and the team reaps 14.3 points per game because of his drives. Houston, mostly because of Harden, is one of the four most efficient isolation teams, generating 0.89 points per possession with that play type.
Houston also has a propensity to jet out in transition, attacking the opposing defense following a possession change more than any team in the league. Dallas has difficulty defending the transition game and can rarely clog the paint when they need to, which is why they gave up 1,451 points this season (seventh-most) because of it.
Believing you can limit Harden for an entire series seemingly is a pipe dream, but without his starting point guard and one of the team’s low-post threats, Harden will have to be, as he has much of the last two months, self-reliant in the playoffs. Harden averages seven assists per game, but only reached that average once against the Mavericks, and each game went down to the wire.
If Rondo can mitigate Harden’s output, the team can switch seamlessly on pick-and-rolls, and Dallas’s post players can keep Howard and Co. off the glass, this will be an absolutely thrilling series. If not, Harden will cruise to the basket as he easily as Houston will to the second round.