For the Houston Rockets to pull off the upset in the first round, they will need a number of things to break their way. At 45-36 with one final game against the Los Angeles Lakers on the horizon, the Rockets currently hold down the seventh seed in the Western Conference.
The San Antonio Spurs appear to be Houston's most likely opponent in the opening round. However, that can change depending on how the final day of the regular season shakes out.
The Rockets have a number of components that make them a tough draw in the first round, regardless of who their opponent is.
They have one of the game's premier two-way guards in James Harden. "The Beard" is averaging nearly 26 points per game, while shooting 44 percent from the field and 37 percent from behind the arc. He's also contributing nearly two thefts a night on the defensive side of the ball.
The team also has a dynamic playmaker in point guard Jeremy Lin. The former Knicks sensation leads all Rockets in assists, averaging six per game, and scores just over 13 points a contest. Houston also has an emerging talent in small forward Chandler Parsons (15.4 PPG, 48 percent from the field, nearly 39 percent from three).
The biggest X-factor for Houston will be the surplus of young bodies in the frontcourt. Free agent acquisition Omer Asik has been everything the team could have hoped for from their starting center, averaging a double-double for the season. Asik also does his part on defense by blocking at least one shot per game.
Beyond Asik, the Rockets have a number of unheralded big men that are capable of making a name for themselves in these playoffs.
Rookie power forward Terrence Jones is coming off a six-block performance against Phoenix on April 15. The former Kentucky Wildcat is averaging 9.4 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in his last 10 games.
Greg Smith, Thomas Robinson and Donatas Motiejunas also bring unique skill sets to the table. Robinson is a high-energy forward who can be a factor on the glass. "D-Mo" is a classic Euro forward with a decent inside-outside game. Smith is also capable of providing some quality minutes.
Still, the Rockets' best chances on advancing will be contingent on three key factors.
It goes without saying that James Harden will be the center of attention for Houston in the playoffs. Harden will be looking to redeem himself after his poor NBA Finals performance last season as well as prove that he's capable of carrying a team deep into the playoffs as the lead guy.
The pressure doesn't fall solely on The Beard, though.
The team gave Jeremy Lin a three-year, $25 million contract to play like the worldwide sensation he became during his brief stint with the Knicks. So far, Lin has made good on his end of the deal. He's cut down his turnovers and become a bit more efficient from behind the arc.
If the Spurs are indeed the Rockets' first opponent, Lin will have to prove himself as a defender by taking on the tough task of guarding Tony Parker. Lin is currently averaging 1.7 steals per game, but he has a tough challenge in trying to stop the speedy Frenchman.
Parker's career numbers in the postseason are impressive. He averages 18.1 points and 5.1 assists per game, while shooting 46 percent from the field.
The Rockets will need a big series on both ends of the court from their guard tandem. Harden had a pretty good series the last time he faced the Spurs in the playoffs, but that was as a member of the Thunder.
Houston will need to get its prized 2-guard started on offense early and get him in a groove. He should avoid falling in love with his outside shot and, instead, opt for drawing fouls by routinely attacking the basket.
As for Lin, the pick-and-roll will be his best weapon. However, it will be as the distributor on pick-and-rolls that will play to his benefit. Opposing roll men are shooting 49 percent against the Spurs this season (as opposed to 39 percent shooting for the handler).
On defense, Lin's best strategy is to keep Parker from penetrating and force him to shoot. Parker is shooting 35 percent from behind the arc this season, but his career average in the playoffs is 29 percent.
All eyes will be on Harden and Lin. They are the two most recognizable names on the Rockets' roster. The other guys will need to do their part, but the Rockets won't go anywhere if their star-studded backcourt goes cold.
The Rockets have managed to get where they are by being an offensive force that outlasts their opponent. Beyond their high-priced starting guards, Houston has guys like Chandler Parsons and Carlos Delfino who can provide scoring in a pinch.
Even someone like little-used backup point guard Aaron Brooks can provide a spark off of the bench.
However, at some point, you have to be able to get stops. Harden and Lin do their part on the defensive end, but a majority of their energy will be spent lighting up the scoreboard. It is important that the Rockets protect the rim.
Center Omer Asik will have a daunting task against Hall of Famer Tim Duncan (or in emerging center Serge Ibaka, if the team draws OKC). Rookie Terrence Jones will need to continue to show the knack for blocking shots that he did against Phoenix.
The duo need to work together to limit "The Big Fundamental" and let the Spurs' other big men beat them. They also need to make Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili think twice about coming into the paint by being stout under the basket.
The Rockets are the No. 1 scoring team in the league. They also have the 23rd-ranked defense, allowing nearly 103 points per game. Houston can wear down San Antonio's aging roster by utilizing their young legs. However, they have to find a way to get stops when the offense goes cold.
Asik has been a solid defender all season. Harden and Lin have their moments on the perimeter. We know this team can score, but can they stop the ball when it matters?
Whether it is San Antonio, Oklahoma City or even Denver, a commitment to controlling the glass is imperative for the Rockets in these playoffs. GM Daryl Morey wasn't thrilled with the team's performance on the boards against Phoenix and listed that as one of the key reasons behind the loss.
San Antonio is 20th in the NBA in rebounding, averaging just over 41 boards per game. The Rockets are seventh in the league in that category, grabbing a little over 43 rebounds a night. It isn't a huge difference, but San Antonio presents the best matchup for Houston on the glass (Denver is second in rebounding, Oklahoma City is sixth).
Omer Asik came out of nowhere this season and has contributed 10.2 points and 11.7 rebounds per game. In a lot of ways, his prowess on defense and on the boards is just as important as James Harden's scoring.
Asik and the team's complement of athletic forwards are going to need to be active on the glass. This could be a big series for Terrence Jones, who is starting to come along as the team's best power forward.
Thomas Robinson was a skilled rebounder during his days at Kansas. Donatas Motiejunas also has the size and athleticism to be a factor on the boards, although the stats don't favor a breakout from either man.
Houston has proved it can score with anybody. By staying active on the boards, the Rockets can give this explosive offense more opportunities to pull away. Statistically, they are a better rebounding team than the Spurs. They have to prove it on the court, though.
The Rockets face long odds of pulling off an upset in the first round. A seventh seed hasn't beaten a second seed since the Knicks beat the Heat in a five-game series in 1998. Oddly enough, an eighth seed has knocked off the top seed five times, so the odds are in Houston's favor if it happens to slip.
Regardless of the opponent or the likelihood of advancing, Houston will prove to be a tough out. Harden is an elite scorer. Parsons is an underappreciated second or third option. Lin has had moments in his short career where he has proved capable of taking over.
A first-round upset might be unlikely, but if Houston can master these critical factors, it can defy the odds for the first time in 15 years.