WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

A position-by-position breakdown of Rockets-Warriors

The Chris Paul-James Harden duo has been terrific. Tim Warren/Getty Images

"We are used to long odds. If Golden State makes the odds longer, we might up our risk profile and get even more aggressive. We have something up our sleeve."

--Daryl Morey, June 13, 2017

Eleven months ago, Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey smugly hinted at what would turn out to be the biggest blockbuster trade in franchise history since Houston dealt for Tracy McGrady in 2004.

Fifteen days later, the Rockets were completing a trade for presumptive Hall of Fame point guard, Chris Paul. Critics claimed that Houston was desperate. They were reaching.

Fast forward now, and the Rockets sit atop the regular season standings ready to host the defending world champion Golden State Warriors on Monday. Houston took the season series against Golden State, but it would be foolish to assume that the Rockets are a lock based on that alone.

This Houston team has been specifically crafted to take down the Warriors and now it’s time to see if all of the analytics finally push the Rockets back into a Finals series for the first time in 23 years. Let’s take a look at how each team stacks up by position.

Point Guard: Chris Paul vs Stephen Curry

Advantage: Curry

In years past Curry wins the point guard matchup against the Rockets running away, but this a different story. Paul is edged by Curry but only slightly. Paul is more valuable on the defensive end and creates less turnovers, but the offensive edge remains in Curry’s favor. Paul’s pull up mid range shot will be instrumental in keeping Golden State’s defense honest. Limiting Curry’s open looks will be imperative to Houston’s success

Shooting Guard: James Harden vs Klay Thompson

Advantage: Harden

Thompson is one of the deadlier shooters in the league, but in a straight one-for-one comparison Harden is clearly superior. These two probably won't match up on one another very often throughout the series, as I expect Andre Iguodala to be tasked with the chore of containing Harden. Thompson has the tools to score from all over the court, however, and sleeping on him would be costly. Both players are star talents, but Harden will be the bigger challenge to contain.

Small Forward: Trevor Ariza vs Kevin Durant

Advantage: Durant

It can be argued that Kevin Durant is the best scorer in the league. He’s simply too big at his position to be guarded by an average sized wing. Trevor Ariza, while regarded by most as an above average defender, will not be able to guard him on his own. The Rockets switch player assignments on defense a ton, so it will likely come down to how well center Clint Capela can stay in front of him when they’re inevitably matched up on certain plays. The best you can hope for is that Ariza plays an efficient game and possibly surprises everyone with one or two hot nights from three point range, but no one is realistically leaning on him to carry us to the next round.

Power Forward: PJ Tucker vs Draymond Green

Advantage: Green

This is going to be my favorite match up to watch. Both players are their teams respective enforcers, and both are absolute bulldogs. Tucker is Houston’s version of Green; a fierce defender with range and the ability to bang down low in the paint. But Tucker isn’t quite as good as Green. Tucker may be more reliable from range, but Green’s inside game, passing ability, and rebounding are far better. I expect a few dustups between these two, but if Tucker isn’t hitting from range, Green runs away with this match up.

Center: Clint Capela vs JaVale McGee

Advantage: Capela

Capela is going to be the X-factor in this series. As he performs defensively, so too will the Rockets. I understand that Harden and Paul are integral to the Rockets success this round, but the deciding factor outside of them has been Capela’s versatility. JaVale McGee is really the only starter on the Warriors that is simply a role player. The Warriors have been playing small ball as well, so he hasn’t even been starting in the playoffs. It will be up to Capela to keep up with their smaller lineup and force them to go bigger if the Rockets plan on evening the field. If Capela struggles, Houston could get shot out of the gym in a hurry.

Bench Advantage: Push

In past seasons, this is where the Warriors would unveil their embarrassment of riches. Golden State has plenty of firepower off the bench, but this season so does Houston. Before, the Rockets’ bench was full of young players with potential and a few role players. Now, it houses a group of hungry veterans in Luc Mbah a Moute, Eric Gordon, Gerald Green, and Nene. Houston’s bench will need to produce offensively to maintain the tempo while the starters rest in order to have a shot. Eric Gordon will need to be dialed in as well, as he’s struggled in the past two series to get going.

Houston has played some great basketball lately, but there have also been moments where they’ve loosened up with big leads and allowed inferior teams to remain competitive. The time for that has passed, and the Rockets will need to play four quarters of the the best basketball they have to offer in order to pull out this series. I’m personally of the opinion that this matchup is the “de facto” championship because I see these two teams as the best in basketball. But I view Golden State as the better team in these Western Conference Finals. I do see the possibility of a Rockets series victory, don’t get me wrong. If I’m forced to make a pick, however, I can’t go against the champs until I see someone dethrone them. I believe, however, that the Rockets have the best chance to take them down out of any other team remaining. Either way, I anticipate this series to go down as one of the best in recent history.


 

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ROCKETS BEAT THUNDER

Rockets blast Thunder in home opener, 124-91

Rockets take care of business in home opener. Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images.

The Houston Rockets had an impressive outing versus the Oklahoma City Thunder after an embarrassing loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves Wednesday night. They took care of business at home on Friday night, which was a surprising blowout. The Rockets didn't have to worry about Karl-Anthony Towns screaming at Alperen Sengun or Anthony Edwards telling Coach Silas to call a timeout. Instead, they took their frustrations out on the Thunder (another younger core).

"We responded and bounced back from that game 1," Silas said. "I wouldn't say it was taking anything out. It was just learning and applying to what you learn and that's going to be us this year. Applying to what you learn and getting better and having some games like we had the other day. Veteran teams have some games when they don't play as well they want."

Christian Wood led the way, as he controlled the paint on all aspects with rebounding and putbacks. He played an incredible game after having a poor performance versus the Timberwolves. Silas showed complete trust in allowing Wood to open sets, as he walked the ball down the court several times, and in transition too. Wood became aggressive on the perimeter with open shooting and tough shots, and long strides towards the rim. He finished the night with 31 points and 13 rebounds off 66 percent shooting from the field.

The young core for the Thunder had a tough night defending Wood from every aspect. Hopefully, he keeps this play up. Silas loved the space that was created throughout the game for Wood, which included the help from Eric Gordon, as he continued to play better. Wood continues to develop underneath the Silas umbrella. He had a great feel for off-the-dribble shooting a few times. Wood becomes more dangerous when space is created on the court.

"It allows me to show what I can do. It allows the floor to be open and I can create for other guys and create for myself," Wood said.

As Gordon continues to impress, his teammate Kevin Porter Jr was amazed with his performance.

Gordon looked marvelous inside and outside of the paint, as it looked like a time ripple. The younger guards of the Thunder had a tough time staying in front of Gordon. His size and strength gave the Thunder a huge problem. Gordon is shooting the ball better too, as he is shooting the three-ball at 70 percent this season. Although it's a small sample size, Gordon is trying to overcome his shooting struggles from last year. Gordon finished with 22 points on 66 percent shooting versus the Thunder.

"EG is the biggest part of this squad," Porter said. He comes in and just scores. We need somebody off the bench to do that. He is our guy when me and J come out, it's EG time and he knows that, and comes in aggressive. So much energy on the bench, and we need that every night from him if we want a chance to win."

As I recently mentioned Porter, his facilitation did look better versus the Thunder than the Timberwolves. Porter had nine turnovers in his first game but managed to have two Friday night. He made great slip passes and found open teammates in the open corner. Porter forced a good number of passes versus the Timberwolves but looked more relaxed Friday night. The hardest position in the NBA is the point guard position, but Silas will not allow Porter to fail. Instead of nine turnovers, Porter dished out nine assists. Silas said:

"Bounce back right, going from nine turnovers to nine assists… I think he had two turnovers tonight, which is great. He is making plays for his teammates, and he was really focused."

Porter's shiftiness and creative ability allowed his teammates to get open looks near the rim. He had 18 points because of his step-back threes and first step going towards the basket. Thankfully, Porter is a great ball handler, which confuses defenders on different spots on the court. It's almost like watching a ballerina skate on ice in the Olympics. Hopefully, his confidence continues to get better throughout the year. Porter shot the three-ball at 50 percent tonight. Efficiency is key for Porter this year.

"I'm just trying to let the game slow down," Porter said. "I had a lot of turnovers last game and I just wanted to piggyback and learn from them and learn from some of my forced passes and reads. And sometimes I still force it a little bit. My guys hate that, and sometimes I'm still passive and I'm working on that. When to pass and score and bounce it out, and tonight I felt like I did a good job of that."

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