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Warriors vs. Rockets preview: A rematch worth the wait

Steph Curry vs. James Harden. Getty Images.

It's been eleven months since the Rockets stepped off their home floor with their heads down after losing to the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. It was a series billed to be a battle of the titans and it fully lived up to expectations. And yet, due to the closing circumstances of that series, it felt somewhat unresolved. The fact that both teams were unable to close the series with their best five players healthy has led pundits to play the "What if?" game for the better part of the past year.

Fortunately, the universe has lined up to give us that exact same series again and a month earlier than we expected. We can finally answer questions that were unable to be solved the minute Chris Paul's hamstring went out at the end of Game 5. However, things feel slightly different than they did eleven months ago.

For one, the Rockets have overhauled nearly half of their roster over the course of 8 months. Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Ryan Anderson have been replaced by Danuel House, Austin Rivers, Kenneth Faried, and Iman Shumpert. While many believed the Rockets took a step back this season, the Rockets quietly believed that they got better.

"We feel like we will be better than last year's team going into the playoffs," Rockets GM Daryl Morey said on the Lowe Post podcast in early March. "I think the key variable was when Chris (Paul) came back, how was he going to look? And he looks great. He looks like last year."

And Morey is right to an extent. Due to Mbah a Moute's shoulder injury, the Rockets were limited in the amount of capable players (seven) they could play in last year's playoffs. This season they appear to be a deeper team going into this matchup with Golden State. Since the All-Star break, the only bench with a higher plus-minus than the Rockets (+2.4) is the Utah Jazz (+3.3).

The Rockets have also appeared to have rounded into form defensively in a significant way. Houston has the fourth best defensive rating in the NBA playoffs, only allowing 99.2 points per 100 possessions. They've legitimately transformed their defense through the additions they made this season. Last season, the Rockets elected to switch everything on defense and were more traditional of an elite defense in that they were great at defensive rebounding.

This season, Houston has slowed down the switching on defense and since they've been so porous on the defensive glass, they've relied on deflections, fast break opportunities, and turning over their opponents to prosper defensively.

Post All-Star break, the Rockets were:

1st in points off turnovers (19.0)

2nd in steals (8.9)

6th in deflections (14.8)

So, we know the Rockets are a completely different team heading into the playoffs. What about the Warriors?

Roster wise, the Warriors are pretty much the same team they were last year heading into the Western Conference Finals (with the exception of Andrew Bogut). However, something just doesn't feel right about the Warriors. Wins take more effort, the execution on both ends isn't as sharp as it was last year, and the spirit of the team feels a little fragile. It also doesn't help that the league has also seen to have gotten better around them.

They've made four straight NBA Finals, so it's possible that they have fatigued and may be nearing the end of their run. To be clear, the Warriors are absolutely deserving of being the favorites for the Larry O'Brien trophy. However, it remains to be seen if they are the same Warriors team of old anymore.

Prediction: Rockets in 6

This pick feels so wrong, but it's just where my head is at. The Rockets have looked beyond impressive the past few months and the Warriors have looked a bit lackluster. Taking six games to beat a scrappy eighth seed isn't a good look, nor is having Stephen Curry hurt his ankle in the final game.

Houston has also faired incredibly well against the Warriors since they've acquired Chris Paul. Their switching on defense also seems to get Golden State out of their traditional offensive sets and into an isolation-type offense, which isn't their strong suit.

P.J. Tucker will likely see the bulk of his minutes in this series guarding Kevin Durant. Tucker did a great job during the regular season matchups at forcing Durant into tough looks, and he will be absolutely essential to Houston's defense in this series.

Clint Capela, who's just coming off some illness that he played through in the Jazz series, has to find a way to stay on the floor when the Warriors go small. The Rockets value his lob threat keeping defenses honest against James Harden too much to go with Tucker at the five for extended stretches. In prior years, Capela staying on the floor and guarding someone like Stephen Curry on the perimeter didn't used to be a problem, but now it's worth questioning if he can still switch as effectively as he used to.

Possibly the most interesting element of this series will be if the Warriors deploy the same defense the Jazz did against James Harden in Round 1. The "play from behind to take away his step back three and let him drive into our elite rim protector" strategy was incredibly effective against Harden. Harden, a career 60.9% true shooter in the regular season, shot 52.9% in Round 1. The strategy works in agitating Harden at the rim and forcing him into less efficient shots (floaters).



The Warriors will likely start Andre Iguodala to defend against James Harden, as they did in last years' series. This means Draymond Green will play the center. If the Warriors elect to try Utah's strategy, that'll mean they keep Green dropped back at the rim to meet Harden on his drives. It's unlikely they deploy this strategy as the Warriors have always been more effective switching on defense and having Iguodala guard Harden straight up, but it's in interesting wrinkle to look out for.

Although he deserves credit for roughing it out and continuing to shoot when things got rough for him in the Utah series, the Rockets cannot afford to have Harden go cold. To beat a team like the Warriors, you need Harden firing on as many cylinders as he possibly can. A series like this is played on the margins and Harden is the biggest chest piece that can tilt the entire thing in a positive or negative light for Houston.

Also if you're Houston, you need Eric Gordon to play as closely as that last series as humanly possible. Gordon averaged 15.2 points on 64.9% true shooting. This included Gordon shooting a blistering 48.6% from three-point range and playing rock-solid defense on Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell. The Rockets can't stomach having Gordon go cold like he did in Game 7 of last years' conference finals (2 for 12 from three-point range). They need Utah Eric Gordon.

This should be fun.

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NASCAR: Quaker State 400 preview

Photo via: WikiCommons.

This week, the NASCAR cup series heads to Kentucky Motor Speedway for the Quaker State 400. Built in 2001, this track is a 1.5 mile tri-oval with a dog-leg on the front stretch. The most dangerous part of the track has to be turn three as the corner is flat compared to the other three corners that are banked. This has been a major point of contingency for these drivers as most of the cautions end up being there. Look for turn three to be a hot spot come Sunday. Last year, both the Busch brothers finished 1-2 in one of the most exciting finishes of the season so there will be a lot of hype for this race to live up to.

Last week at Indy, as we all expected the race was a crazy one. Over the course of the race's 160 laps, we saw many horrific accidents including a scary pit road accident involving Corey Lajoe, Ryan Blaney, Justin Allgier, Ryan Preece and others. The wreck started when everyone got stacked up entering the pits and the calamity was on from there. During the wreck Brennan Poole struck Rear Tire Changer Zach Price as he was trying to avoid the wrecking cars in front of him. After the incident fans and media alike all held their breath as they awaited news on his condition. But when the camera panned to him being loaded into the ambulance, there was a huge sigh of relief as he gave everyone a thumbs up signifying he was okay. Another scary moment was both Erik Jones and Alex Bowman's vicious crashes. Both cars had tire failures that sent their cars directly into the wall. Fortunately both drivers were okay but their days were over.

In the end, tire wear would end up claiming one more victim as it took out Denny Hamlin as well. With seven laps to go, the four-time winner this season was in prime position to get his fifth victory until his right front tire blew out, sending him hard into the turn 2 wall. This mishap handed the win to his main rival in the championship, Kevin Harvick, as he went on to claim his third Brickyard 400 victory and fourth win of the year. When it was all over, many questioned why there were so many tire failures and if new owner Roger Penske would make an effort to possibly widen the pit-road after the massive accident on Sunday.

Needless to say, there are a lot of questions on what will be different at Indy in 2021. When I talked to spotter Freddie Kraft on Tuesday, he gave a lot of good insights on both topics. When it came to the tire failures, he talked about how the increasing corner speeds at the racetrack has put a lot of pressure on these Goodyear tires which eventually led to them coming apart. As far as Pit-Road and what they can do to fix that, he talked about how it is difficult to make changes to a track that is so historical. Which makes sense, but he followed this up by saying that maybe it would be wise to give up a little history and move the wall over and make it wider. It will be interesting to see what NASCAR does in the coming months.

On Friday, Associated Press journalist Jenna Fryer revealed a bombshell announcement that 7-time champion and NASCAR's biggest name Jimmie Johnson, had tested positive for coronavirus. As everyone knows, the world is going through the worst pandemic it's ever faced in this lifetime. With the sport coming back and racing again, it was only a matter of time until one of the drivers came down with it. Unfortunately it had to be NASCAR's most recognizable driver. Thankfully, Jimmie made a full recovery and was cleared to return this weekend at Kentucky. This was a big scare for everyone in the NASCAR world, but I have to give a lot of credit to Johnson for being as forthright as he was about his diagnosis with everyone who he works with. It will be good to have Jimmie back on Sunday.

The driver that I have winning this weekend is Kyle Busch. While this season has been a disappointment for the defending champion, Kentucky would be a great place for him to turn it around. Ever since the cup series has started going there, Kyle has always been in contention to win. In fact, he won the first cup series race that was run at this track back in 2011. In his nine starts there, Kyle has finished outside the top ten only once and even then he finished 12th, back in 2016. Last season it appeared that Kyle was on his way to a third victory at this track, but he came up one spot short to his brother Kurt in a fantastic last lap duel. After a late race restart this weekend though, I see Kyle redeeming himself and capturing his first victory of 2020. Look for Kyle to get back on track come Sunday.


All stats and information used in this article are brought to you by the good folks at driveraverages.com and Racing-Reference.com, the best websites for all NASCAR stats.

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