The Rockets handled the Mavericks in the postseason, similarly to how they handled them in he regular season. After beating Dallas three times in four meetings during the regular season, they accomplished the same through the first four games of their first round playoff series. Their game five 103-94 victory, propelled them into the second round for just the second time since 1997.
1. The Rockets needed another fast start, like they’d had in each of the first four games. They got it. Houston carried a nine-point lead into the second quarter, thanks to another hot shooting first quarter. Houston made 13-of-24 shots in the first quarter, including 5-of-10 3-pointers. In the playoffs, Houston is the only team shooting above 50 percent in the first quarter of their games and Houston is way up there at 55.4 percent.
Any hopes the Mavericks had of carrying momentum from their game four win into Houston was squashed almost immediately as they managed just 22 points in the first quarter and fell right back into their familiar shooting woes from their first two games in Houston to begin the playoffs. Dallas shot well over fifty-percent in their two games in Dallas, but they shot below 45 percent in all three games in Houston, including just 38 percent in game five.
2. Rick Carlisle certainly thought he found something with the insertion of Al-Farouq Aminu and J.J. Barea into the starting lineup for game four. Their starting five outscored Houston by 21 points in their 18 minutes on the court together and Barea dropped 13 assists, while scoring 17 points. Barea could not duplicate that performance. While he did have nine assists in game five, he was unable to create offense in the half court as he did in previous games. He shot just 3-of-12 and Houston did a much better job of limiting his penetration off of pick and rolls. The Mavericks were (+22) with Barea on the court in game four, but a (-19) with him on the floor in game five.
Aminu was just as good, if not better, in game five as he was in game four. As noted below, his defense on Harden was strong in the fact that he made Harden work to get what he got. His contributions defensively overall and then additionally on offense were immense. He had 14 points on eight shots, mainly because he made his free throws (7-8). He grabbed nine rebounds and had a game high five steals and also had two ferocious fast break dunks during one of several Dallas’ outbursts in game five. For the series, Aminu shot 55 percent from the floor, 64 percent behind the 3-point line and 79 percent at the free throw line. All were way up from his regular season percentages of 41 percent (FG), 27.4 percent (3ptFG) and 71.2 percent (FT).
3. Kevin McHale said after the series clincher that Houston would not have gotten by Dallas in five games if not for Josh Smith’s play. That’s for sure. Smith was the Rockets second leading scorer in game five, just as he was for the entire series. He dropped 20 points in 22:27 of playing time, made 7-of-12 shots and grabbed eight rebounds in game five. He still made careless plays with the ball, committing four turnovers, but his overall contributions easily outweighed his mistakes in game five and over the course of the series. He electrified the crowd constantly with his creative and constant alley-oop passes to Dwight Howard and saved his best for last with some outstanding play in the fourth quarters of the series. He shot 69 percent in the fourth quarters and led the Rockets with nine 4th quarter assists – nearly all of them the aforementioned rim-rattlers he offered up to Howard.
In the five game series, he averaged 17.4 points, 6.4 rebounds while playing less than 26 minutes per game. (His per 36 minute scoring numbers were 24.5 points, again, second best on the team to Harden.) He actually outshot Harden from behind the 3-point line, 39.1 percent to 38.7 percent and made 51.5 percent of his shots from the floor. He was, however, consistently the Rockets worst performer at the free throw line, shooting 50 percent or worse in all five games and just 43.5 percent for the series.
After Houston’s game four loss, Trevor Ariza said, “I take a lot of responsibility because I didn’t play particularly well. I played with low energy. That won’t happen again.” He certainly played with better energy in game five, grabbing 11 rebounds for the second time in the series. Interestingly, he’s now had 11 or more rebounds in four of his last nine playoff games after accomplishing that only twice in the first 48 playoff games of his career. He was the Rockets second leading rebounder at 6.6 per game and in this series it was of great importance for him to contribute in that way because he was atrocious shooting the ball.
Ariza made only 13 shots in the five game series, while missing 32 times. He was just 5-of-22 on his 3-pointers as well. The Rockets were nearly unbeatable when Ariza hit at least 40 percent of his 3-point attempts during the season, going 24-3, until a pair of losses in the final week of the season to San Antonio, who obviously could be their next opponent. Advancing to the western conference finals likely isn’t happening unless Ariza starts making his 3-pointers. Because he means so much to their defense, he will be on the court regardless, but they’ll need something from him offensively.
– Harden had an MVP caliber regular season and could find out this week if he wins the award. And still, his numbers went up in the first round against the Mavericks. He also played fewer minutes per game. While it is completely accurate to say that Al-Farouq Aminu did a good job of defending Harden, it’s also accurate to say Harden still got his. He scored at least 24 points in all five games and took fewer than 20 shots in all but one game. That one game was game three, when he took 24 shots and made 15 of them on his way to a career playoff high 42 points. Clearly in game five, Harden had too many turnovers (6), but even his turnovers were down from the regular season (3.9 per game to 3.8).
Also Harden’s usage rate actually went down in the postseason from 31.3 to 29.3. It was a huge bounce back series for Harden, who struggled in both of his previous playoff appearances with Houston, shooting a combined 38.3 percent from the field in his first 12 playoff games with Houston. The contributions from his teammates were also evident compared to last season’s short playoff trip. He averaged two more assists per game compared to last postseason, while playing nearly eight fewer minutes. After playing 40 minutes or more in all six games against Portland last season, Harden played 39 minutes or less in all five games of this series.
– To no one’s surprise, Howard clearly and handily won his matchup in last year’s post season against Portland’s Robin Lopez. Well, he did the same thing against Dallas’ Tyson Chandler.
Matching up against DeAndre Jordan will be tough, but it will be the first time to see that matchup in awhile since Howard missed all four games against the Clippers. Howard was outstanding against the Spurs this season averaging 21 points, 14.5 rebounds per game and shot 71.7 percent from the field in four games.
Game one of the Rockets western conference semifinals series will begin on Monday, May 4 at Toyota Center, with Houston holding home court advantage over either the Clippers or the Spurs and hosting games one, two and if necessary games five and seven.