Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
HOUSTON — Warriors. Rockets. The NBA Finals … er, Western Conference Finals begin on Monday in Houston. We’ll be breaking down various angles of the conference finals over the next few days, covering the ins and outs of the analytics, the X’s and O’s, and, of course, the action.
Here are some post-practice random thoughts the day before Game 1.
1. The Rockets Need to Win Tonight
Game 1 is a must-win for Houston. The Rockets worked all year long for this moment. They played the season to the bone, barely rested players, secured the best record in the league, won their division and got the No. 1 seed so that they would have home court in this series. Not the playoffs, not the Finals (though that would be great, too). This series. If Golden State comes out and wins Game 1 by hook or by crook, everything Houston worked for all season could be gone in 48 minutes. Their confidence, their home-court advantage, their position of playing ahead … all gone. The series isn’t over at that point, but even if the Rockets earn a split, Golden State goes back to Oracle with a chance to go up 3-1, and 2016 aside, that’s a lead that seems impossible to recover from.
2. Expect the Same Old Warriors
The Warriors do not seem overly impressed or hyped for this matchup. There are times when player quotes reveal a certain level of intensity that they’re trying to downplay. Golden State honestly seems bored, not just with the playoffs, but with the questions about Houston. Draymond Green was offended at the conclusion of the Pelicans series by the suggestion that Golden State was “obsessed” with the Rockets, and the tone from the Warriors on Sunday was similar. There are polite platitudes about Houston being a good team. But this team was challenged by an OKC squad that had them down 3-1 and had Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook (remember when other teams had star power?) and by a Cavaliers team that, you know, beat them.
3. The Warriors Respect the Rockets, But They Aren’t Scared of Them
Consider what Andre Iguodala told the Athletic — that the Cavaliers and Thunder were great teams. In very typical Iguodala fashion, he said the media would twist his words into saying the Rockets weren’t good, but that’s not accurate. The Warriors seem to give perfunctory respect to this Rockets team for being good. It’s just that this is their fourth straight trip to the WCF. They’ve seen a lot of good teams. To beat them, you have to be great, and until someone really threatens to do that (which no one has even come close to since Durant joined), it’s hard to blame Golden State for being next-level comfortable.
4. Steph Can’t Get in Trouble on the Defensive End
I asked Stephen Curry how to avoid picking up cheap fouls vs. James Harden. “You can’t reach,” Curry said, before pausing as he considered how to phrase his description of Harden’s annoying habit of trapping an opponent’s arm and exaggerating contact. “Even if they’re not fouls, he makes them look like it, and that’s an art,” Curry politely said. It’s about discipline, but it’s also important. When teams isolate Curry off the switch, he gets up for it, wanting to prove he’s not the weak link on the team defensively. (He is.) Curry’s an able defensive player on-ball, but he also gets way too amped for it and winds up committing cheap fouls. If that happens, it opens the door for the Rockets to create separation with their offense. This is a big deal.
5. Capela Needs to Dominate the Glass Against the Warriors’ Small Lineups
Clint Capela said that against the Warriors’ small-ball unit, his focus shifts slightly toward offensive rebounds. That will be crucial. Mike D’Antoni suggested at practice Sunday that he may use Capela to counter the Hampton Five/Death Lineup instead of going to Houston’s own small-ball lineup. In those situations, Capela needs to get offensive rebound chances, not only to punish the Warriors for surrendering the size advantage, but to keep them out of transition. As Zach Lowe wrote and talked to David Thorpe about this week, the Rockets put two shooters in the corners when they spread the floor, and if Harden misses long on a step-back 3 with two shooters in the corner, it opens the door for outlet passes off long rebounds up the floor and easy points for the Warriors. Which is doom.
6. Live Bet When Ryno Enters the Game
If you’re tracking the live line, Ryan Anderson’s presence might be a trigger. He doesn’t have much of a spot in this series. If D’Antoni goes to him, it’s because the offense is suffocating and he needs to try to give it life. Once the Rockets go toward trying to outscore Golden State at the cost of their defense, they’ve hit desperation mode, and that usually only makes things worse.
7. Houston Should Communicate Better at Home
Houston’s home-court advantage is soft. Even against Utah, attendance wasn’t great. The crowd is often less than capacity and rarely raucous. It’ll be heightened for this series, but it won’t be manic like Oracle is. That actually might work to Houston’s favor. If you’re trying to call out back screens and off-ball switches, you need to be able to communicate. The ability to hear when you’re on defense might actually be a boon for Houston.
8. The Warriors Need to Limit Nick Young’s Minutes
Nick Young better not see much time in this series. Golden State’s bench is really rough. It’s fine, because of how good the Warriors’ starters are, but despite Young’s fine plus-minus in the regular season vs. Houston, the Rockets took turns tearing him apart in ISO.
9. Harden’s Endurance Is Key
Houston’s style is pretty smart. There’s a thinking that goes you have to move the ball to beat Golden State’s half-court defense, but the Warriors want you to do that because they can switch everything and their length disrupts passing lanes. Conversely, the ISO-heavy Rockets kind of remind me of another great Houston team: the 1994 and 1995 championship squads. Those teams used Hakeem Olajuwon’s singular 1-on-1 greatness and the way they forced double teams to punish squads by kicking it to shooters. The Rockets do the same, only with the Harden-Capela pick-and-roll. Guard it straight up with two guys and they tear you to shreds with their isolation scoring ability. Bring help, and Harden or Chris Paul kick to shooters. The simplicity is a trademark of D’Antoni’s philosophies, and at the same time it helps it be nearly foolproof. It is what it is … provided Harden can deliver. He was sick last round (per D’Antoni) and has struggled as he’s gotten more and more tired when the playoffs have advanced in recent years. How Harden maintains his endurance will decide much in this series.
10. I’m Betting on Warriors in Five
I’ve been asked for a prediction in this one, so here goes: Warriors in five. The safe answer is Warriors in six. It gives Houston its two wins, while suggesting Golden State steals one on the road and closes out at Oracle. But a few things. One, as stated above, if Golden State steals Game 1, the series could tilt quickly and get away from Houston. Two, the Warriors’ margin for error is high, because, in the end, they have Durant and Curry. They can play badly and still win behind those two. For the Rockets, if they play badly but Harden or Paul goes off, they likely still lose. They need to play exceptionally well and get superstar performances to get a win. I don’t imagine this series being filled with blowouts. There will likely be one for Golden State (Game 3 or 4 most likely), but, in general, I expect Houston to have a chance to win every game. But having a chance to win and converting those to actual victories is a different deal. Golden State has lost three games in the playoffs since adding Durant. Three. The Warriors won’t be caught off guard this time. They won’t give less than acceptable effort, even if they’re not taking the Rockets as serious challengers. The Warriors irrevocably damaged the competitive balance of the league in adding Durant two years ago. Thrashing Houston after how great their season has been would just be another sign of that imbalance.
Pictured above: James Harden