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Warriors vs. Rockets preview: A rematch worth the wait
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 Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, and Ryan Anderson have been replaced by Danuel House, Austin Rivers, Kenneth Faried, and Iman Shumpert.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).
Rudy said NOPE 🙅🏻♂️ (via @utahjazz) https://t.co/3y89ndDT4C— Yahoo Sports NBA (@Yahoo Sports NBA) 1555816918.0
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.