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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 Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Ryan Anderson have been replaced by Danuel House, Austin Rivers, Kenneth Faried, and Iman Shumpert.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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Houston gets the best of the Dodgers

Astros behind McCullers Jr. get shutout win in hostile Dodger Stadium

Yordan Alvarez added some big insurance runs against the Dodgers on Tuesday night. Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

Having dropped two of three in San Francisco against the league record-leading Giants over the weekend, the Astros exited an off day on Monday and entered a hostile environment at Dodger Stadium in the first of a two-game series on Tuesday night. With some timely hits and an excellent start from their starter, Houston would grab the win.

Final Score: Astros 3, Dodgers 0

Astros' Record: 65-42, first in the AL West

Winning Pitcher: Lance McCullers Jr. (9-2)

Losing Pitcher: Walker Buehler (11-2)

Houston scores first as McCullers Jr. out-duels Buehler

After nearly turning the game's very first pitch around for a home run but instead going foul, Jose Altuve still started the game with a single in the top of the first. A double play would erase him, though, as the game remained scoreless into the top of the third. Martin Maldonado led that inning off with a double, moved to third on a wild pitch by Walker Buehler, then scored on an RBI double by Michael Brantley, putting Houston ahead 1-0.

Houston threatened again in the top of the fourth, getting two on with two outs, bringing up Martin Maldonado with an empty base, which the Dodgers would use by intentionally walking him to get to Lance McCullers Jr., who grounded out to strand all three runners. He made up for it on the mound, though, out-dueling Buehler, who finished six innings while allowing a run by getting into the seventh scoreless. He would get two outs into that frame while giving up a single and a walk, leaving two on base for Blake Taylor, who came in to get the third out. McCullers Jr.'s final line: 6.2 IP, 4 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 9 K, 110 P.

Alvarez adds insurance as Astros take the opener in LA

Clinging to the one-run lead in the top of the eighth, Carlos Correa worked a one-out walk to bring Yordan Alvarez to the plate, who demolished a 415-foot two-run homer to add two big insurance runs, extending the lead to 3-0. Kendall Graveman took over out of the bullpen in the bottom of the eighth and, despite allowing a leadoff single and hitting a batter, was able to finish a scoreless inning.

With Ryan Pressly on the paternity list, Houston handed the ball to Ryne Stanek to close things out in the bottom of the ninth. He would get the job done, earning the save by retiring the Dodgers in order, giving the Astros the win at the dismay of the fans in Los Angeles.

Up Next: This short series's second and final game will begin thirty minutes earlier on Wednesday at 8:40 PM Central. For the Dodgers, they will get the debut of Max Scherzer (8-4, 2.76 ERA), while Jake Odorizzi (4-5, 4.30 ERA) will take the mound for the Astros.

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