Rockets vs. Mavericks: Preview, keys to victory, matchups to watch for

Houston Rockets Russell Westbrook (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Houston Rockets Russell Westbrook (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /
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Houston Rockets
Houston Rockets Russell Westbrook (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images) /

The Houston Rockets resume their quest to capture an NBA title when they take on the Dallas Mavericks on the national stage Friday night.

The Houston Rockets are finally back in regular season action Friday night against the Dallas Mavericks in a game that has the potential to be the most exciting game of the NBA’s restart. The two teams are neck and neck in the standings, with the Mavericks trailing the Rockets by 1.5 games in the race for the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

The Rockets and Mavericks are first and second in offensive rating for the season, so don’t be surprised if defense begins to feel optional. With only eight games left in the regular season, the playoffs start now for both teams as they hope to claw their way into a top-six seed to avoid the Clippers in round one. The winner of this Texas showdown will position themselves for a deep playoff run and possibly a title.

Houston and Dallas split their two previous matchups this season, with neither contest giving the viewer much insight into how their upcoming game will unfold. In their first meeting on November 24th, the Mavericks won 137-123, but the Rockets were still trotting out Clint Capela at center and hadn’t yet committed to micro ball.

Round two saw the Rockets unleash micro ball and grab a 128-121 victory over the Mavericks, but Luka Doncic missed the game due to injury. Both victories carried a huge caveat for the opposition, which makes it difficult to discern who has the edge in round three. Even their records do little to help. Both teams went 7-5 over their final 12 games before the shutdown and had an identical total of 40 wins.

The Rockets used the NBA’s three restart scrimmages to get their offense and their superstars humming. James Harden came into the bubble 25 pounds leaner and showed that his new physique might have added another level to his play. In scrimmages, he led all players in scoring and looked to be unguardable.

The Beard is tuning up… ?

3⃣0⃣ in the FIRST HALF for James Harden. #WholeNewGame

— NBA (@NBA) July 29, 2020

Russell Westbrook’s arrival to the bubble was delayed by a positive COVID-19 test that seemingly slowed him down in the early going. Westbrook’s struggles did not appear to be physical but rather a matter of getting his timing and finishing back after such a long layoff.

Even during a pedestrian performance in the Rockets’ first scrimmage, he was still able to shatter a defense into two single-handedly.

By the time the Rockets played their final scrimmage, the Westbrook of old was back and as dangerous as ever after he poured in 19 points in 26 minutes on 60 percent shooting. The Rockets did lose Eric Gordon to an ankle injury, but his loss shouldn’t hurt their chances.

The Mavericks had a much more balanced approach to their restart as their reserves played almost as much as their starters. However, just like in the regular season, it was the Luka Doncic show.

The Mavericks’ leaned heavily into Doncic when he was on the court, with him averaging 19 points, seven assists, and 7.7 rebounds in only 22.5 minutes per game. Those numbers, extrapolated his regular season average of 33.3 minutes per game, equate to 28.1 points, 11.4 rebounds, and 10.4 assists per game.

Doncic is a known quantity at this point, but his 7’3 running mate, Kristaps Porzingis, has a few more questions to answer in his first season back after missing an entire year following ACL reconstruction.

Porzingis is about as emblematic of the modern NBA as they come. As a 7-foot-3 shot-blocking rim-protector that struggles to score out of post-ups but can bomb 3-pointers, he’s one of the many NBA unicorns to burst onto the scene in recent seasons.

However, Porzingis had only had one small burst of elite production this season, which happened when he averaged 25.2 points per game on a .656 true shooting percentage in February. On most nights, he is a reliable second option, but he lags behind most true contenders’ second-best players, and that may cost the Mavericks against the West’s best.

Stylistically, the offenses of both teams could not be more different. The Rockets run the most isolation plays in the NBA by a boggling margin. The Rockets go to isolation plays on 20 percent of their offensive possessions, with the next-highest figure being 10 percent by the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Rockets running the most isolations make sense since they average more points per isolation than any other team and have James Harden. The Mavericks, meanwhile, run most of their offense through different pick and roll variations and lead the league in points per possession on those plays.

While the Mavericks and Rockets run their offenses through different channels, their outputs are strikingly similar, with them ranking first and second in 3-pointers attempt rate. With the league’s two best offenses facing off, there is a real possibility that more 3-pointers will be attempted than 2-pointers, but they’ll be setting it up in entirely different ways.

Next: Rockets that need to step up