What can we find from the four Warriors-Rockets games this season that will help us predict how this Western Conference Finals will turn out?
Well, Golden State absolutely destroyed the Rockets this season. All four games, the margin of victory was eleven points or more. However, the first two times Golden State played the Rockets this year, Houston was without star center Dwight Howard.
On November 8, Golden State won 98-87, with the Rockets, after playing admirably without Howard, Terrence Jones and Patrick Beverly, ultimately folding in the third quarter as the Warriors went on a 22-4 run. This is a theme that would occur throughout the season series: the Warriors would go on a run, and the Rockets would wither. In that game, the Rockets attempted an astounding 42 three-pointers (making just ten, for their worst three-point shooting performance of the season) and without Howard were helpless to stop the Warriors in the paint. Andy wrote in his recap that this was the "first signature Stephen Curry game of the season ... 34 points on 19 shots, four steals, five dimes and ten rebounds (!!!)" Also of note: Golden State, behind Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala, held this season's scoring leader, James Harden, to just 22 points.
On December 10, with both the Warriors and Rockets missing star centers -- Andrew Bogut and Howard, respectively -- it was the Rockets' turn to dominate the paint. James Harden went off for 34 points (yet only had four free throws) and bamboozling Warriors defenders all night. Tarik Black (???) and the now-injured Donatas Montiejunas dominated the glass through three quarters, and it looked like it would be close down the stretch. Then the Warriors put Draymond Green at center, and a track meet turned into a full-on Daytona 500. Which, you know, with the Warriors having the best small lineup of any team in the NBA, Golden State raced away and won 105-93. Andy wrote that the Warriors going small changed the focus of the game, and "forced Harden into tougher shots as the fourth quarter went on." That will be extremely important in this series -- defending solidly without fouling Harden.
In the third game of this matchup, Golden State absolutely crushed the Rockets by 25 -- in Houston. This was the infamous "they ain't that good" game, where Harden insulted the Warriors in the pregame huddle -- and then got absolutely hammered. This was the healthy Warriors against the healthy Rockets, and we all know who won that battle. Golden State dominated the second half, emphasized by Stephen Curry's incredible pass to Harrison Barnes. Klay Thompson wrecked Harden defensively, harassing him into making just four of fifteen shots -- getting five blocks in the process. Another important takeaway from this game was that the Warriors ran the Rockets off the three-point line, with Houston taking just seven three-pointers. If the Warriors can force Dwight to beat them down low (he did in this game with 23 and ten boards) but take away the three, that is a huge boon for Golden State.
In the final matchup, just four days after the 131-106 beatdown, Golden State again ran away with the game, with the final score (126-113) closer than the game really was, as the Warriors held a 102-78 lead going into the fourth quarter. Josh Smith got ejected and Trevor Ariza and Curry had some words for each other. The Rockets were no doubt fuming about losing four times in lopsided fashion to a team they thought they should hang with.
The Rockets survived to advance to Golden State
The Houston Rockets looked down and out last week after getting blown out at home in game five, and trailing big in game six. But that didn't stop "Clutch City" from earning a fifth chance at beating the Golden State Warriors this season.
We should note that the Rockets are in relatively few ways the same team the Warriors last faced in January. These Rockets will not have Patrick Beverley, Monteijunas is hobbled, and Josh Smith and Corey Brewer have both played key roles after joining the team midway through the season. And while the Warriors saw Dwight Howard twice, he will make a big impact on the series.
This Rockets team likely will rally when the Warriors make a run, contrary to what we saw in most of the season series; Houston rallied from 19 down in the second half (mostly without Harden) facing elimination just a couple of days ago in Los Angeles. Then they raced out to an early lead in Game 7 and closed out the series against the Clippers. The Warriors will have to be disciplined defensively against Harden and stay home on the Rockets' shooters, Ariza, Brewer et al. And you know how the Warriors sagged off of Tony Allen? They just might try something like that against Smith to better guard Harden and Howard. Golden State has to stomp on the neck of Houston in taking a lead like they did in the season series.
While Houston made some moves and found a groove in coming back from down 3-1 against the Clippers, the Warriors are confident that they can beat the Rockets. They've done it four times, each time just slightly differently. Golden State has mixed up their lineups and can play at ludicrous speed tempo without having their defense fall off a cliff.
Can you say the same for Houston? Nope.
The Warriors are favored in this series, and they ought to be. With Klay Thompson and or Andre Iguodala hounding Harden, Bogut harassing Howard (one of Howard's least favorite matchups), Green running point forward, and Steph destroying the non-Patrick Beverley point guards that Houston plays, this series seems like a matchup that the Warriors love. Judging by the results of the season series, Golden State should quickly and decisively earn a Finals berth.