By Paul Gallant, SportsRadio 610By Paul Gallant

For most, the NCAA tournament is the month where basketball is at its best. Buzzer-beaters. Upsets. Cinderellas. And the Bill Raftery.

That doesn’t apply to me. While I love the opening round of the tournament, two weekends worth of missed layups, 300 TV timeouts, and the slogging play that every Big Ten squad drags onto the court gets old. I need the NBA Playoffs to start. Like, right now.

Luckily, the Rockets are just 11 games away from tipping that off. Unfortunately, that’s still three weeks too far away. Seriously, with all the injuries we’ve seen of late (Patrick Beverley’s wrist, Terrence Jones’ lung), I’m beginning to feel like Sam Bradford’s mother.

With those injuries in mind, the Rockets need all the help they can get. If the James Harden era of Houston basketball wants to go boldly where they’ve never gone before (sadly, the second round), a favorable first round matchup is EXACTLY what they need. So what Western Conference contenders fit that bill?

First, let’s rule out the following teams: The Golden State Warriors, Oklahoma City Thunder, Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Pelicans. There’s no way in hell – thankfully – that the Rockets will play the Warriors in round 1. Up 8.5 games over the 2nd seeded Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State is a LOCK for home court advantage in the Western Conference. And since they’ve essentially clinched the conference, it’s highly improbable that Houston will play the Thunder, Suns, or Pelicans – one of which will likely be the 8 seed. That trio is 4, 7, and 7.5 games back of the 7th seeded Dallas Mavericks respectively.

That leaves the Rockets with 5 potential first round matchups. Which one would be best?

1. Dallas Mavericks

HATEABILITY SCALE: 10 Jar Jar Binkses

Dallas. Dallas. Dallas. Also, Dallas.

BEATABILITY SCALE: 10 Rich Kotites

Much like Binks’ feeble mind (remember the time he . . . ended The Republic?), the Mavs would be easy to manipulate in a first round series. In fact, I think they’re the one team with zero chance of advancing out of the first round. Monta Ellis can’t score. Rajon Rondo is an awkward fit. And they don’t have a bench. YUP.

2. Portland Trailblazers

HATEABILITY SCALE: 9 Emperor Commoduses

Well this happened…

What more do you need?

BEATABILITY SCALE: 6 Kenny McCormicks

Commodus knew he had no chance against Maximus. With that in mind, he gave Maxy a farewell surprise! (It didn’t really work out too well though).

Wes Matthews WAS that surprise for the ‘Blazers last season for James Harden. Via nagging defense and attacking Harden in the post, he wore the Rockets’ star into a stump by the end of the series. Luckily for the Rockets – and unfortunately for Matthews – he tore his achilles earlier this month and will miss the rest of the year. Portland – 4-6 in their last 10 – will struggle without him.

3. Los Angeles Clippers

HATEABILITY SCALE: 39 Joffrey Baratheons

The Clippers legitimately have ZERO redeeming qualities. They flop. They pout. They glare. They whine. They’re everything that’s wrong with basketball in the 21st century: the epitome of Entitled Basketball. And all the Chris Paul to Blake Griffin/DeAndre Jordan dunks in the world won’t change that.

BEATABILITY SCALE: 5 Apollo Creeds

In the past, this hasn’t been a favorable matchup for the Rockets. After all, the Clippers swept Houston last year. But the Rockets – without Dwight Howard – found a way to beat Los Angeles the past two times they’ve met. How? Probably by simply matching up against the Clippers, who (other than DeAndre Jordan) can’t play defense.

Don’t get me wrong, the Clippers would still be a tough first round matchup. I shudder at how effective Chris Paul could be if Patrick Beverley isn’t healthy enough to go. But they aren’t unbeatable either.

Side-note. Has there ever been more of a paper champion than Apollo Creed? He goes 15 rounds with a bum off the street, loses to that bum his next fight, and ACTUALLY DIES the only time he faces true competition.

4. Memphis Grizzlies

HATEABILITY SCALE: 1 M. Night Shyamalan Movies

Before I turn M. Night into a punching bag, remember this: The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs were all quality movies.

I find it hard to loathe Memphis. Marc Gasol is quietly having a hell of a season. And they grind it out on defense for 48 minutes a night. My kind of basketball.

That said, for others, watching the Grizzlies is akin to watching The Last Airbender. They don’t shoot 3s. They pound it in the paint. And they aren’t . . . flashy. But does that make them hateable? Not particularly.

BEATABILITY: 5 The Jokers

The Grizzlies love to grind it out. And the Rockets have been at their best when they play up tempo. Reminds an awful lot of this line at the end of The Dark Knight by the Joker, no?

You just couldn’t let me go, could you? This is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. You truly are incorruptible, aren’t you, huh? You won’t kill me out of some misplaced sense of self-righteousness, and I won’t kill you because you’re just too much fun. I think you and I are destined to do this forever.

These two split the season series. The difference (other than the refs, per an extremely sensitive Rockets twitter-base)? It’s been James Harden.

In 2 Losses:
11-17-14 (L 93-119): 6 points, 13% Shooting
3-4-15 (L 100-102): 18 points, 44% Shooting (but 29% from 3)

In 2 Wins:
12-3-14 (W 105-96): 21 points, 55% Shooting
12-24-14 (W 117-111): 32 points, 59% Shooting

Obviously Gasol/Zach Randolph v Dwight Howard/Donatas Motiejunas will be a key as well. But how Harden fares against tough defenders Tony Allen and Courtney Lee would be the deciding factor. Luckily for the Rockets, there’s a very small chance that they’d see Memphis (currently the 2 seed) in the first round of the playoffs.

5. San Antonio Spurs

HATEABILITY SCALE: 4 Platinum Nickelback Records

I don’t think I’ll ever understand the hatred for Nickelback. Be honest. You probably listened to all 20 of the minutes above.

At some point in history, hating Nickelback became cool. And I find it funny. Because for all the hate, that band is still together AND making a bleep ton of money. Lead singer Chad Kroeger is laughing all the way to the bank.

Yes, the Spurs win all the time. Yes, the Spurs are only a couple hours West of here. But I can’t hate excellence, no matter how “boring” it is to see it consistently every single year.

BEATABILITY SCALE: 1 Murdoc

Because despite having 3 living fossils on their team, they will never, ever die. You should want no part of this team, EVER. Let alone in round 1.

Paul Gallant hosts the “B-Straw and Pauly G” show – weeknights 7-11 PM – with Brien Straw. Get in contact with Paul on Twitter – @PaulyGSays – or on Facebook – Paul Gallant.

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