In terms of the aesthetic, strategic, and emotional aspects of basketball the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets are at the opposite ends of the basketball spectrum.
One team is universally liked by the casual fan, the other vehemently hated. We did not get the dreaded San Antonio Spurs team that fell to the Los Angeles' best and now appears to be their final effort. We did not get the heated rivalry that consisted of Draymond Green getting into fights with Dahntay Jones and Blake Griffin. At the same time. Instead, we get two teams who don't respect each other - "they ain't even that good" - and a series that threatens to create another rivalry worth our while.
The Golden State Warriors move the ball at such a frenetic pace that even the high-risk plays leading to turnovers often result in oohs and aahs from both home and road crowds. The Houston Rockets are as analytically-drive as the Warriors but also rely on a more steady diet of high pick-and-rolls, allowing James Harden the space to dribble, dribble, cross, and swing through someone's forearm for a foul call.
One team jacks up threes in transition like that's why basketball was invented and they were put on this very Earth to do something that teams have curbed themselves from doing their entire life. The other relies on a ragtag group of veterans that have gotten kicked off teams for shooting too many dumb shots (Josh Smith), hated by multiple fan bases for reasons (Dwight Howard), and of course the James Harden flop effect.
Then as we get to the top we get to Daryl Morey, the GM most despise either because he treats his players like chess pieces, refusing to buy into the notion that chemistry exists, and essentially building a team without a true leader. The NBA is a business, as people love to say; Morey simply brings that to its most extreme level. (Of course, this isn't to say he's a bad GM. He's one of the best and swindled the Oklahoma City Thunder out of a superstar for trash assets). On the other side, there is Bob Myers, a GM that hasn't gone out of his way promoting a single player on his team (unlike Morey) because he think it's unfair to the other players on the team. Then there was Bob Myers tearing up on the podium during Stephen Curry's MVP ceremony. Real emotion.
But those things are the narrative, the reasons why social media will consist of fake online humans tearing each other apart. As for the actual stuff on the court?
Things to watch on defense:
The Houston Rockets are hard to figure out at this point in the postseason. During the regular season they were a stronger defensive than offensive team, finished 12th in offensive efficiency and 6th in defensive efficiency. Like the Golden State Warriors of last season, they don't possess many shooters beyond James Harden and maybe Trevor Ariza. They compensate by playing at a higher pace at the second-highest pace and jacking up three-point shots despite the lack of accuracy.
Dwight Howard still doesn't run enough pick-and-rolls, instead content on handling the ball on isolation post-ups and slowing the offense down to a crawl. He isn't as limited as Tyson Chandler but he posts up thinking he's Shaq. That should bode well for a Warriors team battling post-ups throughout the second round.
Against the Los Angeles Clippers
, the Rockets struggled through four games and into a 3-1 series deficit before turning it on. They did most of that work on defense but they also found open shot after open shot on offense when Harden broke the defense down repeatedly. Josh Smith and Terrence Jones
also drove the ball to the rim at will against an exhausted Clippers team. The role players excelled getting pretty much whatever they want.
The Warriors will throw Klay Thompson
on James Harden to start, who does as good as job as anyone. The key to containing Harden is to move your feet, stay on the ground, and contest without fouling. All that is easier said than done but J.J. Redick
does a good job and Thompson is right there. The Rockets eviscerated the Dallas Mavericks
behind an avalanche of Josh Smith-Dwight Howard pick-and-rolls but I doubt we'll see those again. The Warriors can likely switch around or play straight-up. Corey Brewer
, Josh Smith, and Jason Terry
got hot in the Conference Seminfinals but the regression is something the Warriors are certainly counting on. The Rockets finished 14th in three-point shooting for a reason.
The key matchup is likely the Draymond Green-Josh Smith matchup. For all the grief Smith has taken, he's still solid defensively and can move around on both ends in a havoc-y feel. He's longer than Green and is the type of player on offense that might, key word, might be able to take advantage of Green at times. Boris Diaw does it. It's not the best matchup for the Rockets but one they'll have to win if they want a chance in this series. Against the Clippers, he hit an assortment on threes, half-hook shots on drives, and sprinted to the basket in transition.
Finally, don't expect the Warriors to play the Hack-a-Dwight game. They like the pace fast and understand that they do not want to attack any set defenses after fouls.
Things to watch on offense:
If the Rockets need Josh Smith to beat Green on offense to have a chance, they need Dwight Howard to dominate the paint on defense to win four games. Howard's been superb throughout these playoffs, protecting the rim and unlike most big men, quick enough to get to the perimeter and the paint in less steps than even the better wing defenders.
The Rockets' best chance against Stephen Curry is to likely throw Trevor Ariza on him and allow Jones and Howard to trap and recover with their quickness and length. The Warriors will counter that by having Draymond Green as the release valve and punishing the quick open spaces with passes to Thompson and a newly aggressive Harrison Barnes. If Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston stay aggressive against the gambling Corey Brewer and corpse on defense James Harden, the Warriors could have a field way on that end.
The regular season Rockets defense looks like a smoke-and-mirrors scenario when considering how they played against a battered Dallas Mavericks squad. It looked about the same in the semis but they recovered by blitzing a ragged Clippers team and hitting unsustainable shots from mediocre shooters to win three in a row.
On offense, the Warriors are glad to escape the clenches of the Memphis Grizzlies
, who while they beat up in the final three games, still struggled to get open shots at times. Curry won't have to deal with Patrick Beverley
and the times he gets matched up on a big or Jason Terry, things could get real ugly for Houston. Klay Thompson won't have Tony Allen
dancing around in his nightmares. Howard will protect the rim but there's nothing the Warriors haven't seen with Marc Gasol
, arguably the best rim protector in the league.
The best Rockets scenario to get this series to an anything-can-happen Game 7 would be the sustained shooting of Josh Smith, Corey Borewer, the return of Patrick Beverley to annoy-grab Stephen Curry Mike Conley-style through screens, Dwight Howard owning the paint the way Gasol and Zach Randolph did in Games 2-3 against Andrew Bogut, and James Harden getting Thompson/Iguodala/Green in foul trouble in the first half.
That's perhaps the most lopsided aspect of this series. The Rockets need multiple things to go right, and while some are more likely than others, the probabilities of those things happening go down as several need to happen for a win. For the Warriors, there's a much lesser margin for error. They'll have much less trouble on offense, and their defense is actually suited to play the run-and-run high-variance style the Rockets will surely install to get this series all funky and unpredictable.
Fortunately for the Golden State Warriors, predictable is all we're going to see between two teams that are contrasted in style and players. This is about as homer-ish as you'll ever see me. Enjoy the series.
Series Prediction: Golden State Warriors in 4