And now, the matchup you’ve all been waiting for; The clash of the Titans; The metaphorical NBA Finals everyone has wanted to see all season is upon us. The Golden State Warriors will face the Houston Rockets in the NBA Western Conference Finals (Game 1 on Monday).
These two teams boast the best offenses in the league during the regular season. Both teams are Averaging at least 112 points per game, so casual fans can expect high scoring games and many shots to be taken. As for the diehard NBA fans, expect to watch the best offensive schemes the game has to offer. As basketball enthusiasts, we have been drooling over this possible matchup throughout the year, and we actually get to watch it, unlike in years past.
For those that need catching up on the NBA or just feel like reading for the buildup, continue reading as normal. For those that know these teams inside and out, feel free to skip the next section. WARNING: watching these two teams will feel like a school session, with the class specializing in movement off-the-ball. Take notes if you have to.
DURING THE REGULAR SEASON
The Rockets secured the home court advantage as the top seed in the West with the best record in the league (65-17) and won the regular season series against Golden State (3-1). Superstar guard, James Harden, will probably end up the league’s MVP with the season he has had; posting numbers like 8.8 APG (assists per game), 5.4 RPG (rebounds per game), 86% FT (free throw) percentage, a league-leading PER (player efficiency rating) of 29.8, and career high in points per game with 30.4.
The question coming into this series is: Will Harden be able to lead his Rockets as the MVP past the Warriors? Or will the onslaught of Warriors’ famed “death lineup” be too much for his team to handle? While this discussion isn’t all about James Harden, he will certainly be the focusing point of this series for not just the Warriors, but for all basketball fans.
Harden will not be doing it all by himself; there are other key players he has in Houston, such as fellow guard and 9x all-star Chris Paul making his first ever conference finals (13 seasons) to help distribute the ball to his teammates and orchestrate the offense. Clint Capella has had a breakout season both offensively and defensively; second in blocks per game and first in FG% (granted most if not all of those baskets come from within five feet of the rim). And from the bench, Eric Gordon posted 18 PPG on 43% shooting. Houston have rotational players that fill the roles of deep threat shooting (Ryan Andersen and Gerald Green), defensive anchors (Trevor Ariza, PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute) and size (Nene) needed to complete an NBA roster.
The Warriors dealt with injuries to Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Steph Curry throughout the season. Very rarely, did we see the healthy death lineup during the season. That apparently did not stop the Warriors being the highest scoring team in the league (113 PPG) despite having to settle for the no. 2 in the West.
Steph Curry, while injured during the final quarter of the season, still posted a good season averaging 26 PPG, 6 APG and 5 RPG. Kevin Durant posted almost identical numbers to Curry but switched the assist (5) and rebounding (6) numbers. The Warriors have utilized the veterans on the squad for rotation and that has been what has made them so dangerous in the past. From death lineup member Andre Iguodala all the way to rookie Jordan Bell and G-League call-up Kevon Looney, Steve Kerr has not been afraid to go deep into his bench this season.
HOW HAVE BOTH TEAMS LOOKED IN THE POSTSEASON?
Houston has conceded two losses thus far in the postseason (one in both previous rounds). Their versatile offense had proven incredibly difficult to defend for teams known for their defensive mindsets in Minnesota and Utah. The high pick and roll between James Harden/Chris Paul and Clint Capella/Nene has been their main staple and has usually caused defenders to switch and force mismatches. This draws attention from help defenders which can leave Houston’s shooters open for the two of the best passing guards to casually dish them the ball. And if help doesn’t come, that usually means a lob for Capella or an ISO finish from Harden/Paul.
One standout this postseason has been Clint Capella. The center is leading the playoffs in blocks with 2.9 per game and has won his matchups between Karl Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert; I am not saying Capella is by any means the second coming of Olajuwon, but his presence in the paint has been felt throughout the Rockets playoff run. Defense is what has been somewhat of a criticism of the Rockets in the past; especially with the system Mike D’Antoni has been famous for deploying. However, Capella looks to have become a major defensive catalyst for the Rockets high powered offense.
Golden State played the first six games of their postseason without Steph Curry (one series and the first game of the semifinals). The Warriors began their run by beating a Kawhi-less and partially Pop-less San Antonio in 5 games; Coach Gregg Popovich left the team indefinitely as his wife tragically died of illness during the series.
The following series they faced Anthony Davis and the red-hot Pelicans; Jrue Holiday and Rajon Rondo had helped Davis sweep Portland in the previous round. If the semifinals were a test, Golden State passed with flying colors conceding one loss and ending the series in five.
Steph was reinserted into the squad in Game 2 of that series and didn’t seem to have lost any of his shooting touch; at last, the death lineup was back for the playoffs. With the team seemingly now healthy and four games of being able to re-awaken their chemistry, these seem to be the championship Warriors of the past few seasons; a lot of movement away from the ball, back-door cuts, slip screens and threes… lots and lots of threes.
HOW WILL THE SERIES PLAY OUT?
Houston’s most effective lineup (defensively and offensively) will be Chris Paul, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, PJ Tucker and Clint Capella. Eric Gordon is better coming off the bench. This allows him to be the focus of the offense when Harden or Paul needs a breather.
Harden and Paul will attempt to create switches to result in them being defended by a JaVale McGee, David West or Kevon Looney, as they are not good perimeter defenders and can be exploited with speed and finesse.
Their most effective lineup matches up well with Golden State’s death lineup in terms of size. The question will be can they keep up defensively with their movement away from the ball? Will Paul and Harden be able to chase Thompson and Curry all over the court? If they switch, what matchup are they willing to concede on that possession? This team may be able to keep up with Golden State offensively, but this series will come down to whether or not the Rockets can stop Golden State on defense.
Throughout this series, the Warriors will no doubt deploy the death lineup of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. As we saw last season, this lineup appears unbeatable on both ends of the floor.
Green’s size and basketball IQ allow him to be able to defend almost any player on the court all while also being able to run the offense (Green is averaging close to a triple-double this postseason). Kevin Durant, while not the team’s leader, is the team’s most unstoppable force on the offensive end; the Rockets can only hope to slow down the 6’10” lanky forward. Iguodala (or “Iggy” as he is called), has been the team’s most gifted defender for the past few seasons now and can shoot from deep.
Houston will have a quite a task in stopping this team when it counts and I haven’t even talked about the Splash brothers yet; Klay and Steph have been touted by their previous coach, Mark Jackson, as the best shooting backcourt in the game’s history and don’t expect this series to be any different.
Shawn Livingston, David West, and McGee will be pivotal for the Warriors rotation in this series off the bench. One thing that will be interesting to see is if Kerr tries inserting rookie Jordan Bell to deter or hinder Capella with his heavier size and athleticism.
So, who wins? Who advances to the NBA Finals? While Houston may house the league’s probable MVP, his often-criticized individual defensive deficiencies may be his team’s undoing.
Expect the Warriors to try and get Harden to chase Klay or Steph around the court and make him expend more energy on the defensive end. What’s that Houston? You have Chris Paul now? That may be so, but this is also, for whatever reasons you want to come up with, his first ever conference finals.
Even if Houston matches up well defensively in size, that still leaves the most talented scorer in the game and his name is Kevin Durant. KD will not be stopped by any defender the Rockets have to offer as his size, ball handling, shooting and athleticism allows for him to have the advantage in nearly every situation this series could put in front of him.
And again, all of that without mentioning two of the best (if not the best) shooters this game has ever seen. Curry may not yet be completely healed from his knee sprain, but on this team, he may not have to.
The Warriors play a style that encourages individuals as much as it does teamwork, and that goes all the way to the end of the bench. The Warriors will be fresher and they have been to this stage many times in the past few seasons. Harden has disappeared in a key game in past series. Mike D’Antoni has made a conference final. What hasn’t happened are these Rockets getting past the Warriors when it matters most and don’t expect that to change.
Golden State wins in 6.