Something happened as I was writing my Warriors preview for the Western Conference Finals versus the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers suffered one of the more epic hiccups in the history of NBA post-season basketball. The result is a match-up with the Houston Rockets for the right to play for the NBA title in two weeks.
This is a match-up that many Dubs fans were secretly hoping for. While the Warriors/Clippers match-up would have been more entertaining, I am not looking for entertaining. I want the Warriors to win. Their best chance for winning the West and advancing to the Finals is to play the Houston Rockets. Personnel wise the Warriors had several advantages, but the one player they didn’t have an answer for was Blake Griffin, and that would have been a serious problem. I still thought the Warriors would have beaten the Clippers, but the task would have been more difficult. It would have been a long and arduous series that could have hinged on just a few plays. In my mind too close for comfort, so I was pulling for Houston.
This sounds like I am denigrating the Houston Rockets and what they accomplished and that is not entirely true. But, I have considered Houston soft all season long. Not hotel mattress soft, we are talking Charmin toilet paper soft. Squeezably soft. That changed with the Rockets riveting Game 6 comeback last Thursday night when they came back from 19 down in the late 3rd quarter to beat the Clippers and send their series to a Game 7. Without James Harden on the floor the Rockets outscored Los Angeles 49-18 over the final 14 minutes to rescue their season. You learn a lot about a team when the ship is sinking and I learned the Rockets are not “squeezably soft.” I saw their toughness on full display.
So now we have a match-up of the two top teams in terms of seeding in the Western Conference. We have two teams that had the top two candidates for the Most Valuable Player award with Warriors point guard Steph Curry easily out-distancing James Harden for the hardware. Houston feels their man was slighted, Harden told the media after their Game 7 win on Sunday that he has felt over-looked all season. It’s an intriguing match-up on so many levels.
Both teams like to shoot the three and both teams like an up-tempo pace. This should entertain the nation watching two teams that get up and down and are adept on the offensive end. The big difference between the two squads is on the defensive end. The Rockets play good defense is stretches, but if you really watch them they allow way too many blow-bys. The Rockets back-side rotations are not consistent. That lack of defensive predictability makes it hard to depend on them. They rely too much on having Dwight Howard behind them to clean up their messes, and unlike his years as Orlando’s center, he is not the same rotating defender. Howard does change shots. He also blocks his share, but his apathy and his unwillingness to “consistently” help his mates hurts this team. I would argue Howard is a good defensive player, but he could be so much better.
Statistically the Warriors are the best defensive teams in the league. They hold opponents to the lowest field goal percentage in the Association and it’s probably the biggest reason why they won 67 games. Their defense is also the biggest reason the Dubs ousted Memphis in the semi-finals, especially after falling behind 2 games-to-1. The Warriors commitment to defense was nurtured by former coach Mark Jackson and has now been developed and fully implemented by current head coach Steve Kerr.
Many Warriors fans are citing the Dubs season series sweep as the reason why they think Golden State will roll the Rockets. While those games give us insight into the match-up, they are also a bit deceiving. Terrence Jones and Corey Brewer did not play in any of the four-losses the Rockets had against the Warriors. Right now those two are pivotal pieces off of the Rockets bench. Josh Smith only played in one game for the Rockets against the Warriors because he was only released by the Pistons in January. Dwight Howard missed two of the games against Golden State because of his knee issues, which the Rockets smartly made him rest and recover from during the regular season. These are some key contributors that didn’t see the light of day when the Rockets and Warriors played four times before January 21st. If Warrior fans are hinging their hopes on “past performance is a precursor for future results.” Think again……
The Rockets have had some tough injuries this year and probably the guy they could least afford to lose defensively against the Warriors will not be suiting up. Patrick Beverley is a tenacious defender. He is a ball-hawking guard that disrupts, bothers and hinders opposing guards. In my opinion he was the Rockets best chance to try to contain and slow down Steph Curry. He tore a thumb ligament and has been on the shelf for more than two months. While there are rumblings that he may get his cast off and try to play, I wouldn’t bet on it. Even if he does take the floor he is nowhere near game shape and wouldn’t be the same defensive player we have become accustomed to.
I think the Warriors will win for several reasons but let me start with the obvious. The Warriors are simply better at the transition game than the Rockets. Harden is an incredible player. He is a prolific scorer, beating you from the perimeter and off-the-dribble. He takes a ridiculous amount of free-throws and gets bailed out with his floppiliciousness. But, he is a star and gets his team points. While he averaged 25 points a game against the Warriors this year he really struggled in terms of shooting percentage. Klay Thompson’s harassing defense kept him to 25 percent shooting from three-point range. Harden may get his points but he will have to be a volume shooter, and those are possessions that are empty trips for the Rockets. As we mentioned the Warriors hold NBA teams to the lowest field goal percentage in the NBA and the Rockets propensity to run-and-gun will be met with challenges by the Warriors lengthy perimeter defenders. Thompson and Andre Iguodala will make it difficult for the Trevor Ariza’s and Josh Smith’s to get free and open looks. The Warriors close-outs on jump shooters and ball pressure on Houston will stunt the Rockets cohesiveness.
The only team all season long that has been able to quell the Warriors running game is Memphis. Once the Warriors solved that riddle the series was over. After Sunday’s Game 7 win Rockets head coach Kevin McHale said his team will not change heading into the Warriors series. Let me repeat, he said his team will not change adding, “we are going to do what we do, if they prove to be better at it, then so be it.” Hmmmmmmm, interesting. Indications are that McHale and the Rockets feel comfortable running up and down the floor and trying to out-gun the Dubs. Good luck with that.
I think the Warriors have answers for everything that the Rockets will throw at them. Klay will check Harden. While “The Beard” will get his, it will take him a lot of shots to reach his average, and those are possessions where the Rockets aren’t scoring. Steph Curry is going to torch 38 year-old Jason Terry. Maybe 38 year-old Pablo Prigioni can use his guile to force a few turnovers, but the Rockets have a huge huge huge problem in trying to contain the league MVP. If Houston tries to switch a bigger player to Curry, he can use his quickness to get into the paint, and that will cause mis-matches elsewhere on the floor. The loss of Beverley is devastating at the point.
Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes are both playing at a high level and Green is simply a better and more consistent player than Josh Smith. They both can shoot the three, but Smith has a penchant for disappearing. To be fair, the Rockets don’t beat the Clippers without amazing performances by Smith in Games 5-thru-7. Barnes and Ariza will be a great match-up, but I like Barnes’ defensive prowess to shut-down or at least contain Ariza. Many will point to Smith and Ariza performing at high levels for the Rockets in the Clippers series, but I must highlight, look who was guard them. JJ Redick, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes ? Andre Iguodala, Green and Barnes are much better defenders. Ariza, Smith and even Terrence Jones will not be getting the same looks.
The center match-up is intriguing because Dwight Howard has his moments where he seems like an unstoppable force, then he has his moments where he looks like Mister Whipple, you know the Charmin guy ! Andrew Bogut and Dwight Howard will probably get entangled more than once. We will see if Howard wants to mix it up. I know the Warriors and Bogut want to get physical with Dwight. The M.O. on Howard is you can get in his grill and it can affect him. Howard will get his, but he is an atrocious free-throw shooter and the Dubs have 18 fouls between Bogut, Festus Ezeli and David Lee to hammer him and send him to the stripe. My advice, if you are going to foul him, hit him hard across the arms. Make him feel every foul.
The Warriors are an amazing 43-3 on their home floor in the regular season and playoffs. They ALSO have the best road record in the NBA at 32-14 including the post-season. So, even if the Rockets get a game at Oracle. If the Dubs just win one in Houston, the Rockets would have to somehow beat the Warriors again at the Roaracle. I just don’t see it.
This series will be entertaining, high scoring and fun, it could also be short. The Rockets are good at what they do, the Warriors are just simply better at it. The Warriors have answers for the Rockets strengths. Houston has stop-gaps for the Warriors strengths. The Dubs have a way of coming at teams in waves and when those waves become too much, adjustments are needed. McHale has already said, the “Rockets aren’t changing a thing.” That is a huge mistake. As confident as Houston has to feel after their improbable seven-game win over the Clippers, the Dubs feel just as confident after staring their own mortality in the eye, and emerging even better because of it against Memphis.
Warriors in 5