Rockets vs. Warriors: The backstory
Going back to Houston's acquisition of Chris Paul from the Clippers in June, there has been an air of inevitability to the Western Conference finals. The Rockets designed their entire offseason with the Warriors in mind, getting the kind of versatile defensive players and 3-point shooters who could help them keep up with Golden State.
And let's be thankful they did. Around much of the Western Conference, the dominance of the Warriors, who rolled through the postseason with 16 wins in 17 games last year, sent a chill through front offices. Better to focus on the future, the thinking went, than to take on the futile task of slowing down the Golden State juggernaut in the present.
The one other team that put up a fight, Oklahoma City, went down with a spectacular failure in the first round, and if the Rockets had not aggressively resisted the Warriors, the Western Conference playoffs would have been as much a farce as they were last season.
Instead, not only did the Rockets bring in Paul, but they signed P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, two aggressive, switch-friendly defenders who would work well against the ball-sharing Golden State offense. They put increased focus on the defense throughout the year, then added Gerald Green during the season to give the bench an offensive boost.
As it turned out, the plan worked better than expected, even against non-Warrior teams: Houston won 65 games, finished with the best record in the NBA and beat out Golden State by seven games for the top seed in the West. The Rockets' defensive efficiency rating of 103.8 points per 100 possessions was sixth, an improvement from coach Mike D'Antoni's first Rockets season last year, when they were 18th (106.4).
While Houston was overhauling the roster last summer, the Warriors... well, they did just about nothing. Why should they? Their four top rotation players - Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green - are All-Stars, and bench stalwarts like Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and David West agreed to come back as free agents.
The Rockets have four new players among their top 10 rotation players, and Golden State has just one, guard Quinn Cook, who was brought on to fill in while Curry recovered from knee surgery, and has been bumped back in the rotation with Curry now healthy. Big man Kevon Looney has gotten more playing time, but he's been on the Warriors roster for three years now.
For both teams, the road to the West finals has been similar. Houston beat Minnesota and Utah, both in five games, and the Warriors had five-gamers against San Antonio and New Orleans. Heading into their closeout games, the teams had been humming on both sides of the ball - Houston was No. 1 in the playoffs in offensive rating (110.3), and the Warriors were fourth (109.1). The Warriors were tops in defensive rating (99.4), and the Rockets were second (101.1).
That's no surprise. These have been the two best teams in the league all season. This is the main event we've been waiting for. Buckle up.
The matchup that matters
Trevor Ariza vs. Kevin Durant
Ariza is a rarity because he checks all the boxes for a guy you're going to send out as the primary defender against Durant. He has size and length, good quickness and, with 14 years in the league, ample experience.
During the season, Ariza faced Durant only once, and that was in the season opener. Ariza guarded Durant for 27 possessions in that game, and held him to four made field goals in 14 attempts (28.6 percent). It would be asking a lot for Ariza to repeat that over a seven-game series, but he does have the defensive skill to make things difficult on Durant, and with the way center Clint Capela has been defending the paint, Ariza can afford to be aggressive on Durant on the perimeter.
There's also this: Durant is shooting just 28.1 percent from the 3-point arc in the playoffs, and shot just 30.9 percent from distance in his final nine games of the regular season.
The key player
For a guy who has never played this deep in the postseason, Chris Paul is certainly storming his way into the conference finals. In Houston's closeout game against Utah in the conference semifinals, Paul was nearly unstoppable, scoring 41 points on 13-for-22 shooting, including 8-for-10 from the 3-point line, where he had been struggling (29.4 percent) all postseason.
That's the big difference in this Houston team. Harden has had several duds in the playoffs this year, but the rest of the team has been there to boost him when he does - the Rockets are 4-0 when Harden shoots below 40 percent from the field. Paul, in those games, shoots 48.8 percent and has averaged 26.8 points per game. In his four previous postseasons with Houston, Harden had shot below 40 percent 15 times, and the Rockets were 5-10.
Paul needs to continue to be that offensive safety net for the Rockets in the conference finals. Oh, and, at the same time, he's got to figure out a way to corral Stephen Curry consistently.
During the season, Paul guarded Curry on 16.0 possessions per game and allowed 38.5 percent shooting. Eric Gordon, who figures to get some reps guarding Curry, defended Curry on 17.0 possessions, but allowed 66.7 percent shooting in those situations.
The big number
Go back to 5:09 to play in a February game between these two teams - in 2016. That's the last time you will find that Thompson committed a foul against Harden that sent the Houston star to the free-throw line. That's a huge part of his game, but Thompson is always very careful when going against Harden - he just does not give in to the temptation to foul Harden.
In two games against the Rockets this season, Thompson spent most of his defensive time on Harden, and with good reason - Harden is the toughest guy to defend in the Western Conference, and Thompson is one of the top wing defenders in the league. Harden scored 11.0 points per game against Thompson, according to NBA.com data, on 38.5 possessions per game. Harden shot 50 percent from the floor and 57.1 percent from the 3-point line.
But he did not take a single free throw that could be pinned on Thompson, an impressive feat for an offensive player who shoots 10.1 per game during the season. Thompson and the Warriors will live with Harden's shooting from the floor, especially because he's struggled in the playoffs, at 41.7 percent from the field before going 7-for-22 in Game 5 against Utah.
But the goal will be to keep him off the line, which Thompson and the Warriors have done well this year - Harden has taken six total free throws in two games against the Warriors.
Rockets vs. Warriors: The prediction
There are ways you can talk yourself into Houston being able to take down the defending champs. If Harden and Paul can be dominant at the same time, if Capela can shut down the lanes, if the role shooters can sink what the defense gives them... everything could possibly go wrong for Golden State in this series.
But the Warriors collectively have an enormous trove of postseason experience, and they know well the highs of winning and the woes of losing. Not much figures to shake them, even against a great team like the Rockets. Golden State has superior depth and flexibility, and a slight advantage in coaching.
This conference finals series will be no different. The Rockets desperately want to get past the Warriors. They've been plotting to do so for about a full year now. The bet here is that they'll fail.
Warriors in 6
NBA playoff schedule: Rockets vs. Warriors
(All times Eastern)
|Game 1||May 14||9 p.m.||Rockets||Warriors|
|Game 2||May 16||9 p.m.||Rockets||Warriors|
|Game 3||May 20||8 p.m.||Warriors||Rockets|
|Game 4||May 22||9 p.m.||Warriors||Rockets|
|Game 5*||May 24||9 p.m.||Rockets||Warriors|
|Game 6*||May 26||9 p.m.||Warriors||Rockets|
|Game 7*||May 28||9 p.m.||Rockets||Warriors|
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