The Rockets finished the regular season as southwest division champs. They finished a game better than Memphis and San Antonio, six games better than Dallas and 11 games better than New Orleans. They split their four games with Memphis and New Orleans, while losing three of four games with San Antonio. The only team in the division that they won their season series with was Dallas, whom they beat three times in four games.
Yet, NBA on TNT analyst Charles Barkley called the Rockets-Mavericks series a toss-up, along with two other western conference series.
“There are some magnificent first round series in the West that are toss-ups for me; Clippers/Spurs, Dallas/Houston and Portland/Memphis, depending on health.” Barkley said on a Thursday conference call.
The Clippers and Spurs split their regular season series and were only separated by one game in the standings, the Clippers won their most recent meeting, 119-115. That looks just like Barkley described – a toss-up in which the Clippers have homecourt advantage.
Memphis won all four of their regular season games against Portland, including a double digit victory in both team’s home arena. While both teams have significant injury concerns, this would not look like a toss-up.
The Rockets – Mavericks series seemingly fits somewhere in the middle as each of the three series matchups are indicative of a highly competitive conference.
“I have no idea who’s going to win the championship,” Barkley said. “I’ve been in the NBA for over 30 years and I’ve never seen a year where there’s no clear cut two or three teams. This year, there’s probably seven teams that can win the championship and I wouldn’t be surprised they won it.”
Just doing the math, it would seem he’d likely consider only Atlanta and Cleveland as title contenders from the east. That would leave five from the west to be considered the same. Obviously Golden State is one. Then is it the defending champion Spurs? Maybe the list includes the Clippers, who finished the season winning 14 of 16 games? What about the Rockets? Or the Grizzlies or Blazers? I just named six west teams, which would already push the total to eight. And I didn’t mention the Mavericks, who were just 14-13 after the all-star break. (As he has said throughout the season, Barkley once again indicated the Rockets were not one of the teams he considered a championship contender, as noted in this Houston Chronicle article.)
So what makes the Mavericks a tough matchup for the Rockets?
“Their (Dallas’) best player is Monta Ellis, followed by (power forward) Dirk (Nowitzki) and (point guard Rajon) Rondo,” Barkley said. “They will be a better playoff team because (head coach) Rick Carlisle will make adjustments from game-to-game. He won’t let (James) Harden beat them four times in seven games.”
Somewhat interesting that he’d consider Rondo the Mavericks third best player and not Chandler Parsons. Parsons was supposed to be the key offseason addition for the Mavericks, hailed by many in Dallas, as the player set to receive the Mavericks torch from Nowitzki. The small forward finished third on the team in scoring at 15.7 points per game. He finished fourth among the starters in PER at 16.4, behind Tyson Chandler and Nowitzki, but well-ahead of Rondo. Parsons missed the final six games of the regular season with a knee injury, but is trending towards being available for game one Saturday, according the Carlisle, though how effective he will be remains to be seen.
Rondo posted a 12.4 PER (player efficiency rating) in 46 games with Dallas. That would be the lowest PER of any season in his nine-year career. While the 35.2 percent shooting on 3-pointers with Dallas was easily the top mark in his career, he attempted only 54 of them in 46 games. Rondo also produced the 33rd season in NBA history of a player making less than 40 percent of his free throws, while attempting at least 75 free throws. Though when you pare the list down to just guards, the list shrinks by quite a bit. To one. Just Rondo. He’s the only player ever, under 6-6 in this very exclusive club. (The only other player under 6-8 on the list is Jerome Lane, who even at 6-6, clearly was a power forward as evidenced by his famous play as collegiate force at Pittsburgh.)
Now the Mavericks, despite losing three of four games, were only outscored by Houston by four points overall. But as the Mavericks defense became less stout over the course of the season, that was mirrored by Houston’s scoring against them in the four games. Houston scored, in succession, 95, 99, 100 and then 108 points in the four games with the Mavericks.
While both teams made significant changes throughout the season with player acquisitions, it’s as if the Rockets will be making one more for this very series. Dwight Howard missed all but one meeting with Dallas, and played just 18 minutes in that game. But that game also was Houston’s seven point victory earlier this month – their largest margin of victory in their three wins against Dallas.
Barkley also shared his thoughts on the MVP award. He conceded what many others acknowledged over the last month – he believes it’s a two-horse race.
“I have said that if Houston ends up a top-three seed in the West, I have no problem if he (Harden) wins MVP,” Barkley said. “It has to be him or Steph Curry. You can have other guys three-four-five, but if you don’t vote for Steph or Harden, you need to check yourself.”
That would seem to be what the vast majority of the 130 voters were thinking as their ballots were due into the league offices on Thursday. A small number in that group have publicly disclosed who they gave their MVP to, and just one voter thus far, a Cavaliers beat writer, acknowledged that his first place MVP vote was going to LeBron James. So clearly not all voters feel as Barkley does, but when the award is given out in May, it would be completely shocking if Harden and Curry did not earn the top two spots.