(SportsNetwork.com) - The Southwest Division champs, the Houston Rockets, open their first-round playoff series with the Dallas Mavericks Saturday night at the Toyota Center.
The Rockets won the Southwest Division for the first time since this realignment took place 10 years ago. They did it on the last day of the season and they boast an MVP candidate in James Harden.
Harden averaged 27.4 ppg, 7.0 apg, 5.7 rpg, 1.9 steals per game all while shooting 87 percent from the foul line, 37.5 percent from the 3-point line and 44 percent from the field. He attempted 10.2 free throws per game and, his once-laughable defense, improved.
Harden carried the Rockets. There's no other way to say it. When Dwight Howard was down, Harden carried them to wins. When point guard Patrick Beverley went down, he played facilitator. Heck, even when Beverley was there, Harden ran the offense.
Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas, who really emerged with full-time minutes, are both out for the playoffs. Beverley has a wrist injury, while Motiejunas is plagued by a bad back.
The Rockets won three straight to win the division and vault into the No. 2 seed.
The Mavericks collected another 50-win season, but only finished seventh, a slot they were pegged in for much of the final weeks of the regular season.
The Rockets were the sixth-best scoring offense in the league. Defensively, they were average. They'll need to be better against the Mavs, the NBA's fifth-most efficient offense.
Dallas was first early in the season in that category, but made a major acquisition in the form of All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo. Things didn't go smoothly as the offense sputtered and Rondo butted heads with coach Rick Carlisle, which is nothing new in Rondo's career.
The Mavs were under .500 since late February and the glow on the Mavericks has dimmed some.
"I've got great confidence in our team. And the fact that the period since the All-Star break has been difficult is something that helps us," Carlisle said. "Even though we haven't played our best all the time, we've played rugged opponents for 27 games now since the break, and we've had to earn every win."
Dirk Nowitzki is still an All-Star, Monta Ellis continues to be an underrated combo guard and Tyson Chandler remains a premiere defensive center who averaged a double-double for the Mavs.
Devin Harris is questionable for Saturday with a toe injury, but he practiced on Friday.
These teams haven't met in the postseason in 10 years. Dallas won that first- round matchup in seven games, but things are certainly different this time around.
"Dallas will be tough. Rick is a helluva coach and they've got a good team. We're going to have to play how we play and attack them. I'm sure it will be a good series," Houston coach Kevin McHale said.
The Rockets won three of four meetings this season and are 4-1 in their last five versus Dallas as the host.