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Victor Oladipo, Pacers

Four Battles The Rockets Have To Win To Have A Chance Against Warriors

The Houston Rockets overhauled their roster over the summer in an attempt to challenge the Golden State Warriors.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey worked his magic, turning a handful of rotation guys and 174 non-guaranteed contracts into Chris Paul, PJ Tucker, and Luc Mbah a Moute. They iso’d, three-point-bombed, and switched their way into a top six offense and defense, 65 wins, and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

And it all came crashing down in 48 minutes.

Well, okay. That’s probably a little drastic. The Rockets are still a very talented, versatile bunch with remarkable high-end talent. Still, their Game 1 loss to the Warriors was not ideal.

After a reckless start early in the first quarter, Golden State dug in on both ends of the floor. Offensively, the Warriors picked the Rockets apart with constant motion, ball-movement, and one particular intricate set they’d run where Kevin Durant would shoot over any and everyone.

Defensively, the Warriors were their usual switch-y selves. The Rockets went mismatch-hunting as expected, seeking out Stephen Curry and Kevon Looney. The Dubs pretty much obliged, hugging up on Houston’s shooters while Harden and Paul dribbled the air out of the ball.  Houston’s isolations, while effective overall, were more draining than normal. The “others” couldn’t establish a rhythm. Fatigue settled in during the second half as the Warriors pulled away.

The Rockets played pretty well in Game 1, missed layups notwithstanding. The issue is “pretty well” just isn’t enough against the Warriors. There’s plenty of room for improvement for Houston, though none of the changes have to be drastic. Here are four simple adjustments Houston should make for Game 2.

4. Get the guards downhill

May 14, 2018; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul (3) shoots over Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (left) and forward Kevon Looney (5) during the second quarter in game one of the Western conference finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s just get this out of the way: the Rockets are who they are. Being a prolific isolation team is what got them to this point. Their offense isn’t going to become Spursian all of a sudden. And that’s okay!

Houston’s course of attack isn’t the issue. The way they went about it in Game 1 is, though. Having Harden or Paul walk up the floor, call for a half-hearted screen, then dribbling into oblivion isn’t how you beat Golden State. That kind of simplicity is easy to defend and doesn’t put any pressure on the Warriors.

Throw in some action beforehand? You may have something.

Though Houston forced a lot of Steph switches in Game 1, Golden State typically wants him to hedge-and-recover against Harden pick-and-rolls. In the clip above, Houston leverages that to get Harden downhill and force a commitment from Draymond Green. A timely cut by Clint Capela gives Harden an outlet for the lob. Easy stuff.

How about some reps out of Houston’s 21 Series (can get more of a primer on that here and here)?

We rarely saw this in Game 1. Even in that example, it was used to force a switch that flowed into an iso. With a bit more urgency and better screening, Houston’s guards can get into the paint like they were able to during the regular season.

3. Keep Golden State on their toes off-ball

Rockets, Clint Capela

May 14, 2018; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets center Clint Capela (15) tries to pass the ball against Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green (23) during the third quarter in game one of the Western conference finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Of Harden’s 14 made shots (and 41 points overall), this bucket stood out the most.

The most noticeable part is Harden reversing action on the assumed dribble-handoff and burning Durant with a cut. But take a gander at the weakside on this play. There’s screening action between Mbah a Moute and Gordon. Gerald Green is strategically placed in the corner so Curry can’t rotate over. Klay Thompson has his back turned because he’s occupied with tracking Gordon. All of that adds up to a few acres of space for Harden to cut into.

As far as I know, there’s no rule against running decoy action on the opposite side of the play. Even if you plan to isolate, that’s a better alternative than having everyone stand in one spot.

2. Be more decisive

James Harden, Rockets

USA TODAY Sports

During the regular season, Harden averaged 9.1 shot attempts after taking seven or more dribbles. That number has shot up to 11.6 in the playoffs. In Game 1 against the Warriors, Harden took 14 shots after seven or more dribbles.

He was cooking, of course, so you live with the result. But that process normally doesn’t work against Golden State over the course of a series (quiet, Kyrie).

Harden’s dribbling exhibitions (and Paul’s, definitely Paul’s) slowed Houston’s offense down a little too much. The Rockets took 17 shots with four or fewer seconds left on the shot clock, more than double their average during the regular season (7.9).

If you’re going to iso, force the switch and get to work. Make Golden State’s defense react to you then go from there. Working the clock down makes sense in theory — limiting possessions = less opportunities for the Warriors to score — but waiting that late makes it harder for Houston to generate good looks. Their margin for error is already nonexistent — don’t make it disappear by doing too much.

1. Something to watch: floor balance

Warriors, Klay Thompson

May 14, 2018; Houston, TX, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Klay Thompson (11) dribbles against Houston Rockets center Nene Hilario (42) during the fourth quarter in game one of the Western conference finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

This is a small thing, but everything counts against the Warriors. The Rockets like to station a shooter in each corner, as close to the baseline as possible. That’s strategic. When Harden or Paul or Gordon get into the paint, they know where their kick-out options are. It leads to quick-hitting dimes like this.

The risk of that kind of positioning is it makes recovering in transition a little more difficult. There’s normally a guard above the break, but that isn’t enough resistance against a Golden State fast break. Too many guys can push the ball off of a miss or turnover. There isn’t a team in the league that can punish your mistakes in transition like the Warriors.

Again, none of these adjustments call for a fundamental shift in how Houston wants to play. Improving in the margins, however, should boost their chances at evening up the series.