With much of their rosters in tact, both teams looked primed to make another run at the Larry O'Brien trophy. However each team took a different route to their first round matchup. Golden State won an improbable 73 games, breaking the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls record for most wins in a single season. As for Houston, it took all 82 to clinch a playoff berth.
Darren Yuvan of Rockets' blog The Dream Shake was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions for us here at GSoM to get a better idea of the Warriors' first round opponent. You can read my insight on the Warriors in response to Darren at the Dream Shake HERE.
AF: First off I'd like to thank Darren for his time, as we always get a kick out of talking basketball with writers from other blogs.
It has been a tumultuous ride for anyone following the the Rockets this season. In October I shamelessly predicted that Houston would flirt with 60 wins this year. Regardless of their record, I still feel that they have a solid core of championship tested veterans that will make any seven game series interesting.
What are some of the big reasons that account for the drop off in wins this season compared to last season?
DY: Well, the number one reason is defense. The Rockets are actually a better offensive team this year than last year. This season, their offense has an 8th-ranked 105.5 rating. Last year, it was a 12th-ranked 104.2. But the defense has slipped dramatically to a 20th-ranked 105.6, a huge fall from last year's 6th-ranked, 100.5-rating unit. And contrary to the narrative out there, this defensive slippage is not a James Harden problem, it's instead a team-wide issue.
The Rockets surrounded Harden with positive defenders at every level-- Patrick Beverley at the point, Trevor Ariza at the wing, and Dwight Howard manning the paint. But all of those defenders have slipped to either average defenders (Ariza and Howard ) or below-average defenders (Beverley) this season. Ariza is still incredibly versatile, Howard can still get blocks (especially if Playoff Dwight decides to show), and Beverley is still a pest, but this is no longer the elite group it was last year.
The second reason is coaching. In retrospect, the firing of Kevin McHale after a 4-7 start looks terribly premature, though if he and Harden just weren't going to get on the same page, it may have needed to be done to save the season. McHale's replacement, however, his former assistant J.B. Bickerstaff, just hasn't been up to par.
Widely regarded as a player's coach and a good communicator, Bickerstaff struggled with rotations, often inexplicably pulling lineups just as they were getting hot, and severely whiffing on opportunities to find minutes for some of the Rockets' young talent when many of the veterans -- namely Jason Terry, Corey Brewer, and Terrence Jones-- struggled mightily for large chunks of the year.
Bickerstaff likely wanted the best opportunity to remain Rockets coach, and felt more comfortable playing the vets, even if there was some evidence the younger players may have offered a better chance to win. Barring a surprise playoff run, Bickerstaff is probably gone at season's end.
The failure to fill the wide open space at power forward has also held Houston back from being the same team it was last season. Donatas Motiejunas (last year's regular season breakout), played in only 37 games following recovery from back surgery. Terrence Jones, once thought of as a possible future stud, fell off the face of the earth and not only failed to improve, but regressed so badly he's likely not even active for the postseason.
Rookie Montrezl Harrell did show some of the spark, energy, and defense the team was looking for at the position in limited minutes, but could barely get on the court for Bickerstaff. He did admittedly struggle at times with his maturity (drawing a 5-game suspension in the D-League for pushing a ref), but the Rockets could have used more of his hard-nosed play during the season.
Things got so bad at the four, the Rockets traded for Josh Smith back from the Clippers and brought Michael Beasley over from China. After a fast start, Smith tailed off dramatically and was benched, though he's returned to the rotation of late and is expected to see some court time in the playoffs. And Beasley is capable of filling it up in a hurry on offense, but struggles to guard anyone on defense. He's a scoring spark off the bench, nothing more. All-in-all, the team heads into this series with the Warriors with the position still mostly unsettled.
And lastly, the failed Ty Lawson experiment took several months of ultimately failed integration attempts before the team finally moved on, which played a big part in the slow start and lack of chemistry the team exhibited for vast chunks of the first half of the season.
That's quite a few reasons! Lots went wrong in H-town this year.I may be one of the few that enjoys keeping tabs on players who take their talents to other countries. It was really no surprise that Michael Beasley absolutely dominated in China.
AF: To some guys who still feel like they can play at the NBA level, playing in a different country can be a wake up call and ultimately a great confidence booster. It seems like he is playing with a greater sense of urgency since his previous time in the NBA
How does Beasley make the Rockets better and exactly how important is he to this team?
DY: I touched on Beasley a bit in the last question, and his scoring has definitely been a nice surprise. With Motiejunas still rounding back into form, Beasley's the only other Rocket outside of James Harden capable of creating on offense, and his ability to provide a scoring punch when Harden rests is something the Rockets sorely lacked before his arrival. Beasley's putting up 12.8 points and 4.9 rebounds on 52.2 percent shooting in just 18.2 minutes of action since he came to Houston and has scored in double-digits in 12 of his 21 games.
The problem with Beasley and why the team needs to limit his minutes is that he's been a black hole on defense this year, carrying an ugly defensive plus-minus of -2.5 for the season. He's a great spark off the bench, though, and expect to see him shoot, shoot, and then shoot some more when the Beard is sitting.
AF: Looking closer at the Warriors/Rockets series. The Rockets run isolation plays for James Harden at a 24.3% clip this season, the most for any player in the league. Harden also set the NBA record for most Turnovers in a single season with 374. In my opinion this is a case of causation more than simply correlation as the Rockets live and die with the ball in James Harden's hands.
While this is understandable due to Harden's elite offensive ability, why isn't Dwight Howard included more in the offense?
DY: The issue with Howard and why we've seen his offensive contributions fall off is two-fold. First, Howard's just not effective in the post anymore. His rudimentary moves, lack of range or any kind of jump shot, combined with the post-up play in general being one of the least efficient plays in basketball now, all of have combined to limit Dwight's effectiveness.
Howard averages only 0.81 points per possession on 290 plays off the post-up, which is a terrible mark, and why you've seen Houston go to him less and less as the season has dragged on. Unfortunately for Howard, despite evidence to the contrary, he still sees himself as en elite post player, which brings us to the second part of this answer.
Howard's fixation on receiving the ball in the post comes at the expense of a much more efficient play for D-12, and that's the pick and roll. Dwight averages 1.09 points per possession when running as the roll the man. The only problem is, he rarely does it, running it only 90 total times on the season. By comparison, league-leader Antony Davis has run as the roll man 352 times on the year (and is actually less efficient than Howard at it at 1.06 ppp). Howard's basically been unwilling to run the PnR, which has the potential to be a devastating combination alongside James Harden's drives.
Dwight's a quintessential post-up center that's about 10 years out of date now in today's NBA, and his failure to adapt his play around the more efficient areas of his game has not only cost himself touches, but probably also cost the Rockets some notches in the win column.
AF: Both the Warriors and Rockets are at the forefront of the NBA with their use of advanced metrics and dedication to shooting from behind the arc. Nobody attempted and made more three-pointers this season than Golden State and Houston, however the Warriors convert at a much higher rate (41.6% v. 34.7%).
What really separates the two is how well the Warriors defend the three-point line. Golden State is the top team at defending the three-point line while Houston gave up the second most threes this season in the NBA.
Outside of a flying knee to Klay Thompson's head, how does Houston hold Golden State's three-point shooting in check?
DY: It's a difficult task, there's no doubt about it. Thompson and Curry have combined for a ridiculous 678 three-pointers this season, and I don't know if you really hold that in check. The Rockets do have Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley to defend the perimeter, and though both have slipped this season, they've been good defenders in the past, so the Rockets need to hope they find their groove once again.
It all really starts with Beverley's defense on Curry though. Bev's not going to shut down Curry, that's obvious. But if he can do what he does best, which is pester, annoy, and maybe even play a little rough at times in an effort to disrupt the Dubs' rhythm on offense just enough that it allows James Harden and the Rockets' offense to score right alongside the Warriors, now we have a series.
Don't be surprised to see a little K.J. McDaniels at times also. He's gotten more playing time in the second half of the year. He's young and inexperienced, and his metrics aren't exactly superb, but he's been able to bother guys with his athleticism and his aggressiveness on defense. The Rockets are going to need all of that they can get to handle Golden State's three-ball attack.
AF: Golden State is 11-1 vs Houston in the Steve Kerr era. But as I mentioned before Rockets are a team full of versatile players who have championship experience.
Which matchups favor Houston the most and how do you see this series playing out?
DY: Well, I favor James Harden against just about anybody at the shooting guard position, especially with as hot as he's been in the last month or so. This is some of the best offensive ball he's played at any point in his career, and I do expect that stellar play to continue in this series.
I know the Dubs have Thompson, and we'll see some Andre Iguodala on the Beard at times and possibly even Harrison Barnes, and I know all of those guys have had some success on Harden at various points, but the Beard is beasting it right now, and he's going to be tough to stop.
I do have Dwight Howard as one of my main x-factors. For all the criticism he takes (some of which was my own in this very Q&A), to his credit, he does seem to have another level that he notches up to come playoff time. If Houston gets the Playoff Dwight that averaged 16.4 points, 14.0 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks throughout last year's playoff run, there's no one on Golden State's roster that will match that type of work underneath. Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezelli are fine players, but neither one is on the same level as Playoff Dwight.
That being said, the Warriors are the obvious favorites for a reason, and I do expect them to take this series. I know this won't be a popular view when it posts on your site and sure to elicit plenty of gasps from your loyal readers, but I had this series going 6 games in a piece I did for TDS yesterday, and I'm standing by that. The Dubs take the first two in Oakland by double digits, only to get over-confident and actually lose two in Houston, where Harden dominates. I know the Warriors haven't lost two in a row all season, but they get it out of the way early in the playoffs.
The Dubs have an extra gear that the Rockets simply don't, however, and Houston simply can't keep up over the next two and fall to Golden State 4-2.
Thanks for having me, Golden State of Mind. I always like chatting with you guys. Here's to an exciting series!
We've successfully crossed enemy lines once again. Thanks to Darren and the Dream Shake for the insight.