The matchup between the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors is one that has been eagerly anticipated by nearly every NBA fan. Some have called it the Real NBA Finals because of how clearly overmatched any Eastern Conference team would be when they eventually meet in the actual NBA Finals. These two teams have far-and-away been the most talented of the season and their records and star-studded rosters prove it. Everyone – especially myself – would love for this series game to go seven ultra-competitive games, but only time will tell. Game 1 on Monday night will give us an indication of what we’re in for.
Here’s a quick preview of both teams and how they’ll go about approaching this series.
Western Conference Finals
(2) Golden State Warriors (8-2 record in playoffs: Defeated SAS 4-1; Defeated NOP 4-1)
- Offensive rating during playoffs: 108.8 (3rd out of 16)
- Defensive rating during playoffs: 99.3 (1st out of 16)
The Golden State Warriors were without their best player, Stephen Curry, for the entire first round and even the first game of round two against the New Orleans Pelicans (giving false hope that the Pelicans had a real chance at taking down the juggernaut Warriors). His return in Game 2 of round two was immediately impactful, morphing the Warriors back into the unstoppable offensive force they’ve been for the last few years. Against the Rockets, they’ll need to be even more on the top of their game.
The Rockets are one of the few teams – maybe the only team – that can keep up with the scoring of the Warriors, and how Golden State defends James Harden and Chris Paul is going to dictate the way this series trends. Curry is an average at best on-ball defender and the Rockets will try to put him in switching situations as often as possible to create a mismatch. Paul and Harden can both torch Curry, especially in isolation sets (something the Rockets, specifically Harden, have done at an all-time efficient rate). The Rockets employ an abundance of pick-and-rolls, particularly with center Clint Capela as the roll man, to create these mismatches. While Klay Thompson and probably a combination of Andre Iguodala/Shaun Livingston will get the majority of defensive responsibilities on Harden/Paul, attacking Curry will be vital for securing easy baskets for the Rockets. It sounds obvious, but the Rockets strictly cannot afford to become content and pass up on easy points.
On the offensive side of the ball, Curry and Thompson will be the key to the offense. Curry is the most influential in-game player in basketball, as there is no one else who has the gravitational pull that causes defenses to focus so much on one player. The Rockets have several players that can try to defend Curry – including Harden, who has been a reliable on-ball defender in these playoffs now that he has Paul as his running mate to soak up some defensive responsibilities – but no one that will be able to shut him down. At least not with Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson hanging around the perimeter.
How Durant fares against the defense of P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, two high-level defenders (especially Mbah a Moute), will be something to keep an eye on. Durant is averaging 28 points per game through 10 playoff games with a 59.5 true shooting percentage, but the Pelicans and Spurs didn’t have the capable wing defenders that the Rockets do. Houston doesn’t have a logical way to defend the many Warriors shooters, so taking away at least one of Durant, Thompson, or Curry (or at least limiting them) is their best bet.
The Warriors will definitely trot out their new “Hamptons Five” lineup (which is basically the remixed version of their “Death Lineup” from previous seasons) which includes Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Durant, and Draymond Green. Green is going to be the X-factor for Golden State, and him playing center will allow him to push the ball and take Clint Capela out of plays. His versatility is going to be huge against the Rockets whenever they go big and just as much as of an advantage when they go small. Golden State is going to have a lineup in at all times that causes some sort of mismatch for Houston.
(1) Houston Rockets (8-2 record in playoffs: Defeated MIN 4-1; Defeated UTA 4-1)
- Offensive rating during playoffs: 111.1 (1st out of 16)
- Defensive rating during playoffs: 102.1 (2nd out of 16)
The Houston Rockets have been the most dominant team in the NBA this season and for the most part that continued into the playoffs. The Rockets had an up-and-down series against the Minnesota Timberwolves, although they still rolled through them 4-1. The matchup in round two against the Utah Jazz was eerily similar. There were stretches where the Rockets weren’t hitting their shots, and when they aren’t falling, the majority of their offensive production is lost.
Harden has been the king of isolation basketball this season, and in the playoffs, he’s gone into isolation sets more than any other player. His 1.04 points per possession in isolation during the postseason are the second-highest among players who averaged at least four isolations per game (behind only LeBron James). Harden has taken one of the most frowned-upon offensive sets and turned it into a legitimate threat that is a go-to move instead of a last resort. No one in the league is better at stopping and starting better than Harden and he can lull defensives to sleep before striking with a fury. Steph Curry would be lunch meat in any Harden iso, so it’ll be up to Thompson, Iguodala, and Livingston to limit him.
Chris Paul is making his first ever Conference Finals appearance and head coach Mike D’Antoni will likely continue to stagger he and Harden’s minutes to maximize the team’s offensive output. Paul has been one of the most efficient pick-and-roll players this postseason, averaging 1.07 points per possession (90.6 percentile) as the ball-handler, and his roll-man, Clint Capela, have formed a lethal offensive attack. The Warriors don’t have anyone that can physically overmatch Capela and he actually might be the one area of this series that the Rockets have a clear advantage. The more involved Capela is, the more options the Rockets will have as they try to space the floor and search for open shooters. The Warriors will have to respect Capela as the roll-man and that will leave opportunities for perimeter shooters to gain a few more inches of space necessary to get off a good look. If Capela is dominating early, the Warriors may look to rookie Jordan Bell to match his athleticism.
The Rockets will shoot somewhere around 40 threes per game, an absurd number, but when they’re connecting on over 35 percent of them they become viable to put up 20 points in a matter of minutes. Whether or not they can do this against the up-and-down playstyle of the Warriors should be interesting. The Rockets prefer to slow things down and use Harden/Paul as much as possible to dissect defenses, but the Warriors will try everything they can to push the tempo.
Prediction: Warriors in 6
Like the Cavaliers-Celtics series, I see this series going six games in favor of Golden State. Houston has created a team specifically designed to take down the Warriors and they’ve done an impressive job, but the explosiveness and creativeness of Golden State’s offense cannot be understated enough. They have the second and third best players in the NBA, a top-3 shooter in Thompson, and an elite, lockdown defender in Green. No matter how much Houston has shown this season, they simply don’t have enough weapons to keep up with the Warriors and their up-tempo style.
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