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Western Conference Finals Preview: Warriors vs. Rockets

Western Conference Finals Preview: Warriors vs. Rockets

We’re finally here.  On May 14, the Golden State Warriors will kick off their fourth consecutive Western Conference Finals appearance, facing the Houston Rockets. Except this time, it won’t be at home. From the moment Chris Paul navigated his way to Texas, this clash has seemed inevitable; pitting the two most efficient predators in a matchup too good for anything but the NBA Finals.

This is the first instance of Golden State starting a series on the road since Steve Kerr was hired in 2014. They had went 14 straight series with a better record than their opponent.

The tale of the tape indicates this is a war for the ages, with both teams being virtually unstoppable in their own right. After both finished off the first two rounds with gentleman sweeps, each have played 92 games up to this point:

(Offensive and Defensive Ratings don’t include garbage time)

This duel places the top two offensive teams in NBA history against one another. When healthy, both teams were in the top five of historical offensive ratings. Only injuries to Stephen Curry (31 missed games), Chris Paul (24), and others caused the metrics to decline as the season progressed. Still, the Warriors and Rockets shot the two-best percentages from inside the arc ever recorded.

5. Shot Selection

klay thompson, chris Paul, james harden, stephen curry

ClutchPoints

Houston has predicated its offense on having the most prolific supply of three-pointers, taking 42.3 per game this year, connecting on 36.2 percent of them — right above the usual league-average mark.

Rockets

2017-18 Houston Rockets, per NBA.com.

By placing their spot-up shooters a foot or two behind the perimeter and having two pick-and-roll maestros in Paul and James Harden, they have forced defenders into the purest “pick your poison” situation. If you leave any one of those shooters (in both corners and one wing) after Paul or Harden use the screen and get downhill, those ungodly passers are kicking it out for a triple. If you stick to the shooters like glue, it’s a backyard barbecue for the point guard to attack his own defender without worrying about help coming. Oh, and there’s also the best lob-threat in the league, Clint Capela, rolling into the paint at a high speed.

 

The Warriors are different. Extremely different. They don’t specialize in the two forms of offense (pick-and-roll and isolation) Houston does.

Kerr’s culture is centered around ball movement, off-ball screening, and decoy actions. With the soon-to-be MVP (Harden) and another Hall of Fame point guard (Paul) running the show, the Rockets finished the regular season with 1,280 isolation possessions. Not only was it the most in the league by a mile, it was 712 more than the Warriors relied on. The same goes with traditional screen-roll action. Houston recorded 2,283 total possessions with a pick-and-roll that ended with a ball-handler making a play or a roll-man threat attacking the rim. For Golden State, those pick-and-roll variations only captured 1,365 of their possessions.

It’s like two films in complete opposite genres both winning Oscars for Best Picture.

The series will be a tug of war between slow, predictable sets and a more up-tempo, inventive attack. Both are easily capable of pulling the rope further in their direction for four games out of seven.

Thus far in the playoffs, the Warriors have passed 323.2 times per game for 54.2 potential assists, both figures slightly higher than their regular season offense. Houston’s favorite tactic isn’t as elegant but it generates ideal production because of the shots they value — threes, free throws, and layups — with a suitable crop of role players comfortably filling in the gaps. They pass almost 100 fewer times, and record nearly half as many “secondary assists,” which are better indicators of constant ball movement.

By having the perfect role players that run the floor in transition and get to the corners quickly, the Rockets have molded a transition threat that mirrors the danger of Golden State, even if they prefer to keep the game at a calmer pace:

This will be one of the most important wrangles of the series: Does Houston not care if this turns into a track meet with the Warriors, or do they want to limit the amount of total possessions?

4. Pace

Stephen Curry, Warriors

ClutchPoints

During their three meetings in the regular season, the average pace was around 103.6 — a speedy game in comparison to the 97.2 that Houston averaged in the month of February, when they got rolling and went 12-0. Although, they have fared extremely well in transition this year. With their new and improved defense, the Rockets force more turnovers, and shoot a 64.9 percent effective field goal percentage on the break.

On the surface, it would appear Houston is parallel with Golden State if this becomes a wicked fast series. The problem with that logic, however, is there’s only one entity with the power to stop a playoff-ready Warriors squad: themselves.

For Golden State to turn the ball over on 15.1 percent of their transition possessions and still  finish third in general efficiency (1.15 points per possession), is truly maniacal. They literally gave away 250 transition possessions and it only knocked them down a couple ranks. This means in the 1,405 instances they didn’t turn the ball over in transition, the Warriors scored 1.36 points per possession. At that point, it’s like burning the arena to the ground when Kevin Durant or Draymond Green are pushing as the playmakers with the Splash Brothers sprinting straight to the perimeter.

They made fastbreak mistakes in their last trip to Houston, uncharacteristically making the wrong pass in a one-possession game:

The fight to dictate pace will be something to monitor, as it all depends on how many turnovers the Warriors can force. Houston, by bringing in Paul, have cut down on most  of their boneheaded mistakes and careless giveaways.

For Golden State to push the pace, they’ll have to rattle them defensively the same way they disrupted New Orleans. That points to one thing: Iguodala causing havoc. Huge minutes might be a bit much for him at age 34, however, he always takes it easy during the regular season to preserve his body for May and June.

Which leads us to ….

3. Lineup Frenzy — Will “Kumbaya Kerr” appear?

steve kerr

Two years ago, Nate Duncan began using the moniker of “Kumbaya Kerr” each time Steve Kerr trotted out some madcap lineups in pivotal playoff games. He played Anderson Varejao for eight minutes in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, a stretch the Warriors were outscored by nine points. When Kerr tries to outsmart the opposition with his rotations, it’s clear he wants to stick to the mantra of “Strength in Numbers” and embrace the ideology that sparked this success in 2014.

To a smaller degree, he decided to start JaVale McGee for Game 3 of the second round series at New Orleans. It didn’t work from the jump but that didn’t matter to him. He went back to McGee at center to start the third quarter, which was the turning point of the game.

What makes playoff basketball beautiful is stars want to play huge minutes. And they need to, unless their bodies disagree. It’s incredibly basic to say, but having your best five-man combos on the floor to start and finish games will matter. It sets the tone early, giving you the best chance to stay out of a large deficit, particularly on the road.

In the first round against a wounded San Antonio Spurs, there’s a little window of time to experiment with lineups. In the regular season when you have the two-seed locked up and need to get by in one piece, there’s plenty of opportunities to get cute with your combinations. But against a team that’s won nearly 80 percent of its games and owns homecourt advantage, minutes can’t be wasted.

The Warriors’ slaughterhouse lineup, referred to as the “Hamptons 5,” has started the last two games for Kerr. While he wouldn’t reveal the starting five for Game 1 of the West Finals, it seems logical to assume Andre Iguodala will keep his spot.

Let’s examine four lineups that could be crucial in this series, and how they’ve performed in the playoffs up to this point:

Rockets, Warriors, Steph Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul, Kevin Durant

The Hamptons 5 will likely match up with Houston’s traditional starters (Paul-Harden-Ariza-Tucker-Capela) for majority of the minutes. One thing Mike D’Antoni is known for is keeping a very short rotation. This, in turn, should force Kerr to stick to his strongest weapons.

Looking at the Hamptons 5 splits between the regular season and playoffs, there doesn’t appear to be an answer for it:

Regular season:

  • 28 games, 127 total minutes
  • 124.7 offensive rating
  • 116.3 defensive rating
  • +8.4 net
  • 59.3%-39.8%-84.3% shooting splits
  • +20 raw point differential

Playoffs:

  • 4 games, 54 total minutes
  • 127.5 offensive rating
  • 86.6 defensive rating
  • +40.9 net
  • 63.1%-45.5%-88.5% shooting splits
  • +54 raw point differential

With Iguodala on the floor, the Rockets are just going to have to dare him and Green to shoot from distance. You almost have to force others to beat you, because Houston’s three best defenders in the starting lineup (Paul, Ariza, Tucker) will have to be laser focused on Durant, Curry, and Thompson.

This is a different lineup shown below, but it’s becoming comical when Green hits these three-pointers when his defender drops down to help in the post:

It’s so evident when you watch these regular season meetings that neither team wanted to give 100 percent in October or January. What we’ll see defensively will be night and day compared to the last time they met.

2. Dueling Death Lineups

Clint Capela

Houston’s front office and coaching staff knew how significant Capela was going to be for this matchup. When the Warriors use Green at center, they are confident Capela can make them pay on the offensive glass, provide interior defense as a shot deterrent, and by not getting shredded when Curry or Durant are face-to-face with him on a pick-and-roll switch. His matchup with the Warriors’ centers will have to be the most dominant advantage on the court for them to win this series. Capela’s massive improvement from last season demonstrates how much they worked with him over the summer, preparing him for the intensity and quick decision-making it takes to compete with Green and the Warriors.

However, the Rockets have the ability to enter their own small-ball “death lineup” if things aren’t going well with Capela. They have one of the league’ most prolific three-point shooters, Eric Gordon, as the sixth man option that makes Houston impossible to guard. D’Antoni can slide P.J. Tucker to center, surrounding either Harden or Paul (whichever one is calling for the high screen) with four shooters. This lineup will also have the ability to switch almost any action involving Tucker or Ariza as the screener, as those are Houston’s best perimeter defenders outside of Luc Mbah a Moute.

Mbah a Moute is another body that D’Antoni has for small-ball lineups, with him playing roughly 70 percent of his minutes at the four this year. And his workload will surely increase against Durant, Green, and Thompson.

This Rockets team is the first to have at least three different guys to put on Durant and make him work. During the two healthy meetings this year, Durant matched up against Tucker for 32 possessions, shooting 2-of-6 with three turnovers. He faced Ariza on 27 different possessions, shooting 2-of-7 with two turnovers. The last reliable defender is Mbah a Moute, who took Durant for 23 possessions and only saw Durant shoot one time. He did most of his attacking against Harden, Paul, and Gordon — on switches.

1. Defense

Zaza Pachulia

CP

If you’re a fan of switchable defenses, this will be heaven on Earth. Rockets’ assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik has them switching on the majority of teams’ actions. Sometimes, in unfavorable situations:

Above, Tucker and Gordon commit to switching once they see Durant coming to screen for Curry. That flows directly into the “double punch” set the Warriors like to run, with another player (Green) entering the play for another pick-and-roll. This is all a decoy to get Durant a mismatch in the post, but it can also be used to free up Curry if the opposing big man fails to step out far enough (looking at you, DeAndre Jordan). When the ball is fed to Durant, it’s Green who tries to set a pin-down for Curry to get a wing three.

If the center is alert and switches like Capela did here, the play will just revert into a Durant post-up. As we saw last series with Jrue Holiday on him, it’s essentially goodnight if he gets enough room to rise up and shoot. Durant is 53-of-87 (60.9 percent) from mid-range in the playoffs, which is unheard of. The Rockets will live with these tightly-contested shots and hope regression bites the Warriors at the right time.

Here’s more off-ball screening action forcing Houston to switch, except with the original starting lineup (Pachulia included). Curry comes to back-screen for Durant, knowing Harden and Gordon will immediately switch it. This makes Harden have to chase Curry through any further movement:

One thing Pachulia is exceptional at is screening to open up his shooters as he turns to set a pin-down for Curry at the top of the key. Notice that Durant cutting to the rim allowed the Warriors to have a couple options — get Curry a good look, or hit Durant in the low post.

Now, here’s the opposite, with Curry’s off-ball decoy allowing Durant to get a similar shot:

Durant calls for Curry to use the double screen from him and Pachulia, but the Rockets switch it. Curry cuts to the strong side, while Pachulia fakes to come get the pass. Oddly enough, Durant, likely the best scorer ever, is left with too much space once he flares out. Pachulia somewhat screening Paul after the switch is what led to the triple.

Again, Houston’s defense will be more locked in than we’ve seen this year. But there’s a difference between being focused and being prepared to stop two hellacious off-ball cutters and one 7-foot jack-of-all-trades scorer. In the same possession, no less.

Ryan Anderson logging zero minutes in the final two games versus Utah, makes this series an intriguing test-case for how much the Rockets will adjust defensively. After they closed out the Jazz, D’Antoni alluded to how different team matchups dictate whether or not a player is effective.

Anderson played over 30 minutes in two of the meetings versus Golden State this season, but it’ll be hard for him to stay on the floor in the playoffs. While his individual defense took a step in the right direction for most of the year, the Warriors are dogs that will hunt the weakest link every single time.

Here, in a similar set from earlier that features Durant posting up, Anderson doesn’t read the pin-down set by Looney fast enough. He allows Curry too much room, and then tries to make up for it by rushing him. It led to the most efficient sequence in basketball, which is three free throws for Curry:

In the lineup for the Rockets above, they have Tucker and Mbah a Moute out there to clean up most of Anderson’s mistakes at center. Even that won’t help when it matters most.

Golden State will have its defensive choices to make, too, especially with D’Antoni’s starters. One of the most difficult sequences to handle is Tucker and Harden engaging in pick-and-roll well past the three-point line, with two shooters spaced out on the weak side and Capela in the “dunker” position. If Curry and Thompson decide to trap Harden or ICE it (force him away from the middle), then it’s Harden giving the ball to Tucker for Houston’s version of a 4-on-3:

If Harden gets rid of the ball early, Tucker has all the room in the world to make a play. Notice how deep Paul is on the wing, forcing his defender to respect the pass. That adds an extra few feet of space. Durant can’t exactly help off Gordon in the corner since it’s one pass away, but he absolutely has to come down to tag Capela. It’s Green who is left in the worst position — unable to fully contest Tucker because he’s worried about the lob threat.

These are the type of plays Tucker, Mbah a Moute, and Ariza have needed to practice this season. Because the time is coming. Golden State will do all they can to make the others beat them. The problem is, this specific Rockets team is the one  roster that’s built to take on that challenge. The Cavs certainly were not, as they were far too top-heavy. Oklahoma City in 2016 had no playmakers outside of Westbrook or Durant. San Antonio never had the injury luck to find out.

Plus, late in close games, it’s already a given what Harden is going to do. Wherever the Dubs are hiding Curry, since it’s best to save his energy for the offensive end, the Rockets will find him. If he’s on Tucker, they will send him as the screener to force the switch. This ultimately takes Thompson out of the defensive play and leaves Curry on an island. There’s nothing you can realistically do about this if you’re Curry, except telegraph his step-back without fouling:

Any one of Green, Iguodala, or Durant being switched on to Harden after a screen-roll is a win for the Warriors, as they’re comfortable with giving Harden a bigger, more physical body to attack against. Green usually does a solid job on these, just when you think his lateral quickness isn’t quite up to par. Forcing Harden into tough looks at the rim will be significant, unless it leads to Green or Durant picking up early fouls. If they get a contested miss, the transition machine ignites:

Series Pick

Golden State has played 400 total games — playoffs included — since Oct. 2014. They have won 320 of them. It’s a winning percentage of exactly 80 percent. In their last 27 playoff games, they are 24-3, with a total scoring margin of +317 (11.7 per game). Now, Houston has to beat them four times in two weeks to move on.

With these two coaching staffs and high-end superstars, it’s more like chess. Someone will be surprised in the early portion of the series, with a couple days to develop a counter. The huge layoff between Games 2 and 3 (for travel) is always when the most adjustments can be made.

Regular season matchups can usually give us a general idea of how the teams are going to attack one another. But, with this one it feels different. Every game is a data point that matters, but Iguodala missed two of the games, Durant missed one, Harden missed one, and Green missed the fourth quarter of a one-point Rockets win on opening night. Those absences matter more.

Everyone is at full strength, with Curry shooting 44.1 percent from deep since returning from the MCL sprain. There is a long resting period, which gives him even more time to get his speed and lateral movements back. There are no excuses for either team.

Paul has been Harden’s safety valve through two series, pushing Houston over Utah after some extremely forgettable performances from the league MVP. Durant is unequivocally the greatest backup plan for isolation offense whenever the Warriors’ normal tune isn’t humming on the road.

This will probably be similar to the Finals, where every time Golden State matches up with LeBron and the Cavs, they are out to prove a point. They actually care. Add in the confident chatter from Capela and the Rockets’ role players this year, and this series will have the Warriors’ attention like no other West series before.

If homecourt advantage had the Warriors with a Game 5 in Oracle, a gentleman’s sweep with narrow margins would be the logical choice.

But, this is another chapter in the Dubs’ story of a golden dynasty — it’s the one time they were tested by a team with a better record. It’ll go longer than the Hamptons 5 believes, unless they just make everyone look silly.

Warriors in 6