Rockets vs. Warriors: 3 Keys for Each Western Conference Contender

Ladies and gentlemen, your Western Conference Finals matchup is set. As fate would have it, the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors will face off for a trip to the NBA Finals. Can the Rockets–custom-made to dethrone the Dubs–pull one (well, four) over on the reigning champs? They believe they can, but they’ll need to hone in on at least three matters of import, while the Warriors address three of their own:

Chris Paul & James Harden Need to Dominate Together

On Tuesday, May 7, the Rockets eliminated the Utah Jazz behind a performance for the ages by Chris Paul. CP3, who had played the most playoff games in NBA history (86) without once reaching a Conference Finals, should feel vindicated after 12 long years of patience and hard work. His fourth-quarter performance was equal parts poetry and clapback–Paul could hardly miss, shooting 7-for-9 in the final 12, including a two-minute stretch when the hoop must have looked as wide as the Grand Canyon for him. The momentous exploit was, as one Twitter user put it, akin to watching Paul “retweeting old memes about him live on a basketball court”. CP hit an insane eight three-pointers out of ten attempts, and in all, netted 41 points, 10 assists, and zero turnovers in a closeout game. No one else in NBA history has accomplished that.
Chris Paul is one of the greatest point guards in NBA history, and he’s finally liberated himself of his most asphyxiating basketball chokehold to date. But for a competitor of his ilk, a hasty elimination from the Conference Finals by the world’s greatest team would mean failure. If Chris wants a shot at a title this year, he and James Harden will need to both be as close to flawless as possible in every game against the Warriors. The Rockets, who boast an 8-2 postseason record through the first two rounds, have coasted on up-and-down play from either half of their marquee duo.
Paul’s 41-point output Tuesday night was matched by Harden scoring 18 on 7-for-22 shooting. Jim may have been under the weather, and the Rockets may have made it look like they’d won easily, but Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz had them on the ropes in the third following a 22-point quarter from the West’s premier rookie. Houston lucked out when Mitchell sustained a foot injury down the stretch of the fourth, opening up the opportunity for Paul to ball out and cancel a second trip to Salt Lake City.

While Paul and Harden have the advantage of sharing leadership responsibilities, they can no longer subsist on exchanging big scoring nights. They each need to be efficient, alert, and resourceful to outsmart a Warriors defense that will succeed by causing as much chaos as possible. They’re each other’s best insurance policy, but there remains a question of urgency that Golden State won’t hesitate to exploit–what if Harden freezes up as if assaulted by a Nerdluck like he did against San Antonio in 2017? For some preliminary damage control, head coach Mike D’Antoni should strongly consider assigning primary ball-handling duties to Paul, whose assist-to-turnover ratio far outweighs Harden’s.
The Rockets haven’t won anything meaningful yet. Their backcourt anchors have no choice but to play as if every game is their last.

Don’t Expect the Threes to Save You

The Rockets’ offensive style–threes, layups, and more threes–isn’t necessarily sustainable. They’re a volume-shooting team whose best defense is their perimeter offense; outscoring the Rockets is an obstacle few teams but Golden State can hurdle. In three regular-season matchups against the Warriors, the Rockets scored 15, 17, and 14 three-pointers while Golden State matched them with 16, 13, and 17, respectively. Ironically, the Rockets won both games in which they were outscored from three.
That doesn’t mean they can lollygag on the perimeter and get complacent. Shoot all you want: there’s no guarantee that the right number will fall each night. In Houston’s sole Semifinals loss to the Jazz–a winnable home game–they shot 10-for-37 from beyond the arc, and couldn’t capitalize on scoring in the paint. Utah went 15-for-32, beating them at their own charade.
The Rockets will need to diversify their offensive attack. That doesn’t mean they need to resort to the godforsaken midrange, but it may yield a heavier workload for Clint Capela, who averaged 15 points and 11.5 rebounds in the Utah series. The reliability of Capela, a Most Improved Player candidate, was crucial to the Rockets’ 65-win season. Weaponizing his athleticism around the rim will be key for Houston, and something the Warriors may have to live with; while their domination of the Pelicans hinged on suffocating Anthony Davis in the paint, the Dubs can’t fathom prioritizing Capela over Harden and Paul.

Pick Your Poison

The Golden State Warriors are special. There are four All-Stars on staff. They’re one of the greatest basketball teams of all time. You already know this! The Rockets know this better than you, though–that’s why GM Daryl Morey made the moves he did in the offseason, bringing in versatile defensive players and bolstering the perimeter. Now, we know what happened back East when the Raptors made over their culture simply to vanquish one LeBron James. While the Rockets may be miles more prepared to take down the West’s version of LeBron, a matchup issue remains: when the Rockets go small, who can be expected to stop Kevin Durant?
The Pelicans snatched a convincing W from the Warriors in the Semifinals, but their greatest accomplishment was playing well enough to convince Steve Kerr to start the death lineup for the first time ever. Said lineup–Steph Curry, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Durant, and Draymond Green–was once saved for break-in-case-of-emergency situations. The Pels proved enough of a threat to completely bump Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee from the Warriors’ rotation; with Draymond at the 5, this defensive nightmare of a squad was a +49 in combined minutes over Games 4 and 5 against New Orleans. Whether or not Kerr will turn to this fearsome five in Houston come Monday remains unclear, but it may be his best bet.
With Capela’s defensive effectiveness limited to hawking the paint, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker are going to devote a hell of a lot of energy to slowing down KD on the perimeter. Durant may be shooting an abysmal 27.9% from three this postseason, but it would be foolish to not expect that percentage to shoot up. KD is primed for a breakout series, especially after being chided by Green for not being aggressive enough against the Pelicans. The Rockets will need to respect every shot he gets off if they want to slow him down, but that will mean relenting to Curry and Thompson. Curry, coming off an MCL injury that saw him miss a month and a half of action, has begun to regain his rhythm and is due a few signature, explosive scoring nights. Thompson had an up-and-down Semifinals, shooting just 27.9% beyond the arc and 38.4% overall.
Therein lies the problem: Durant, Curry, and Thompson averaged 72.1 points combined in the Conference Semifinals despite all playing relatively (note: relatively) mediocre basketball. Add Green–who averaged a triple-double in the same series–to that scoring total, and it becomes a mammoth 86.9 points out of a team average of 115. The Warriors’ core accounted for a whopping 75.6% of the team’s product, and not a single one of them (except maybe Draymond) has even approached their peak. The Rockets have a lot to concern themselves with defensively: there’s no way to shut down every All-Star, but starting with Kevin Durant may be their best option.

Take Care of the Rock

The Warriors need to cut down on turnovers, the top hindrance to their otherworldly offense. Prioritizing precision passing, eyes-up alertness, and just smart decision-making will carry them over the top. They’re averaging 13.4 turnovers in the postseason, down from 15.4 in the regular season, which is good, but not quite great enough. The Rockets, meanwhile, are only turning the ball over 9.7 times on average. Reconcile this with Houston playing at a pace of 98.29 possessions per game and Golden State at 101.82, and the Rockets have a two-possession advantage per game as they put up 109.5 points per game to the Warriors’ 110.3.
These teams are too close in terms of scoring, field goal percentage, and three-point percentage for every single possession not to count. If the Warriors are going to try to outrun and exhaust the Rockets, they need to put up at least 120 points per game by healthily distributing their scoring and managing each offensive opportunity as if it’s their only.

Keep Harden off the Free Throw Line

Whether or not you think James Harden’s flopping is bad for basketball matters little, because as long as the referees let him run shop at the charity stripe, he’s automatically putting the Rockets in a better position to win. Notably, this profusely frustrating yet masterful tactic by Harden got under Donovan Mitchell’s skin during the Semifinals. While the rookie is right to acknowledge that this particular piece of Harden’s game is an ironic ingredient to MVP votes and an unnerving obstacle to overcoming the Rockets, the more experienced Warriors will, in turn, put themselves in a great position if they remain defensively disciplined.
Harden participated in two of three Rockets/Warriors regular-season contests, and attempted just six free throws total. Credit? Klay Thompson. As Harden tiptoes the “unguardable” label, Thompson, as his primary defender in either contest, was not responsible for a single one of those aforementioned six, despite guarding him for an average of 38.5 possessions (more than any other Thompson matchup all year, per stats). Thompson already carries a heavy load offensively, and will have to play excellent defense on Harden to optimize the Warriors’ shot at a short series. Klay’s proven that he’s up to the challenge.

Patience, Please

For the first time in the Steve Kerr era, the Dubs are the lower-seeded team coming into the Western Conference Finals. Kerr sacrificed the prospect of home-court advantage in favor of the health of his golden core, which may well prove a winner’s move. The Warriors approach their fourth consecutive Conference Finals with a champion’s confidence, and plainly understand that in reality, it’s the Rockets who are chasing them.

The Warriors have lost two road games–one each to San Antonio and New Orleans–this postseason, but have basked in a 15-game playoff winning streak at home that dates back to their very first game of the 2017 Playoffs. They won’t play in Oakland until May 20, though, and for the first time this postseason will start a series on the road. While the Dubs should feel encouraged that Houston has a blemished postseason home record, they have little choice but to split (at the very least) this first pair of games if they’re going to suck the life out of the Rockets as early as possible.
In four road playoff games, the Warriors are scoring 104.5 points on 43.7% shooting and turning the ball over 12.8 times with a 2-2 record. In six home playoff games, the Rockets are scoring 109.7 points on 44.4% shooting and turning the ball over 9.7 times with a 5-1 record. Golden State will have to operate with patience, intelligence, and their signature coolness to break these trends and take the next step towards holding onto their 2017 hardware.

Can you remember October 17, 2017? The season opener? When the Warriors received their championship rings? Before a game against the Rockets? Which ended with a waived-off almost-buzzer-beating game-winner by Kevin Durant? When the Rockets won? And carried that momentum on their way to compiling the NBA’s best record? Yeah. This should be good.

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