It’s the series most assumed would happen before the season even began, but now it is official — the Golden State Warriors will face the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals. Most of the NBA community is giddy over this, as this could very well be one of the most offensively focused series in a long time.
Thanks to this, a slew of poorly weaved narratives can be put to bed in favor of an actual conversation worth having. You know, the one about if the Rockets can defeat the Warriors to get to the NBA Finals.
For starters, even though some of it is deserved, the mythological aura surrounding the Warriors should purposely be overlooked. Yes. Sure. Golden State has possibly the most incredible combination of four players in NBA history, but as we learned before Kevin Durant landed after a 73-win regular season, simply assuming the Warriors will win the title is a venture best avoided.
Obviously, this series’ focal point is around all the most notable aspects.
Houston, who was built to attempt such a thing, will try to out-Golden State the Warriors. To hurl more shots from distance than their Bay Area counterparts in an attempt to offset a talent discrepancy between the two rosters.
Despite having an all-time great like Chris Paul as well as an MVP-level player in James Harden, this is a similar model many low/mid-major college basketball teams use to compete with the blue bloods of the sport come March Madness.
On the season, the Rockets attempted and made more 3-pointers than any other team in the league, resulting in a still efficient team-percentage of 36 percent from beyond the arc. Opposite that are the Warriors, who only attempted the 17th most in the league on the season, making the eighth most while having the most efficient 3-point shooting team (39 percent) in the entire NBA.
This is Quantity vs. Quality, but only to a degree. It is not as if Houston is taking so many shots inefficiently from beyond the arc that this should be considered a team hurling as much poop against a wall, hoping to see what sticks.
The teams are nearly identical when shooting from the floor on the season, though it is worth mentioning Golden State’s pacing (99.6) is slightly faster than Houston’s (97.6), resulting in the Warriors averaging more offensive possessions on the season. In turn, it eliminates some of the idea that the Rockets will just try to outgun the Warriors.
In fact, while Daryl Morey built this team and hired Mike D’Antoni to somewhat replicate Golden State, it’s in the less sexy data in which Houston’s edge rests.
Everyone knows of James Harden’s ability to get to the charity stripe, but few realize the scope of the entire team’s ability to draw fouls. The Rockets, who attempted the third most free-throws on the season, are first in the NBA in free throws per field goal attempt (.233 percent). In comparison to the Warriors, 22nd in the league in FTA, are only 16th in free throws per field goal attempt (.195 percent). There’s hidden points available to the Texas-based team.
The two rosters are also similar in how underrated each are defensively. While plenty know — and tout — the prowess of Draymond Green, few have paid any attention to Houston’s sixth-ranked defensive rating or how far the entire squad has come thanks to role players such as Trevor Ariza being coupled next to a more competent Harden. Moreover, how someone like Clint Capela has emerged as not some outdated big man, but a more relied upon two-way talent capable of defending active stretch-fives.
It isn’t that Houston is great defensively. It’s that the Rockets, much like the Warriors, are above-average on that side of the floor. This is not Seven Seconds or Less, Phoenix Suns basketball only. It’s a far more balanced approach to the sport.
Point being, it can be argued that the question being asked is flawed. That, this idea we should be asking what Houston can do to beat Golden State is fundamentally wrong. It is the wrong question.
For the first time under Steve Kerr, the Warriors will be going on the road for Game 1 of a Western Conference Finals series. There’s a variety of reasons that caused that, including Golden State’s deemphasized importance on regular season wins, but the home-home-road edge for the Rockets remains.
More bluntly put: Taking advantage of not actually upsetting Golden State in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals would (likely) dramatically alter the rest of the series. Think about it from your own standpoint if you’re already blind to Golden State going to the Finals. If the Rockets were to win Game 1, would you be at least slightly swayed to the notion that this wouldn’t be some sort of cakewalk for the Warriors?
Most playoff series related topics usually have the caveat of “a series doesn’t begin until a home team loses a game” shuffled somewhere throughout it. There’s a reason for that, as the better-seeded franchise tends to be the better team, usually holding serve at the comfy confines of their own arena and city.
As highlighted by LeBron James taking a four-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers to the Eastern Conference Finals, this isn’t always true. There’s clearly exceptions, as simply being pegged as a one-seed, an achievement accomplished by a larger sample-sized dominance, doesn’t inherently make that team the best in the NBA.
Still, there’s the advantage of resting, looming in the shadows for a good enough team to use that, then parlay it with hidden points and whatever else it could possibly have, to take down one of the sport’s Goliaths — which is exactly how most view the Warriors in 2018.
What does Houston have to do to beat Golden State? It doesn’t have to out-Warriors the Warriors or change their system or style already in place. Houston merely needs to be itself; the Rockets. A veteran team with plenty of their own stars. One that has managed to find a spot as one of the best teams in the entire NBA by attacking the league with a balanced, yet math-friendly approach of taking 3-pointers in bunches.
How do the Rockets beat the Warriors? Eh, maybe that’s a better question than how, but it’s still disrespectful to how good of a team Houston actually is.
Which team is best equipped to take down the other good squad? Hmm. While clearly not as sexy as a declarative statement, even if possibly overlooking Golden State’s talent a bit, that’s a question far more fitting for a series featuring not just one great team, but two.
Can the Rockets beat the Warriors? Of course. And that’s the only question that’s actually worth asking and answering at this juncture of the series — you know, because it hasn’t even started yet.
Unless otherwise noted, all data in column was obtained from Basketball-Reference.