About two weeks ago, Houston Rockets’ center Clint Capela said of the Golden State Warriors that, “I expect to beat them”. It was the kind of quote that, at first glance, you expect to be mocked on social media, and perhaps laughed at by players.
It wasn’t. Part of this was because, in context, Capela was very complimentary to the Warriors. But part of it was because the Rockets are really, really, really good.
Good enough that it’s time to have a serious discussion: can the Rockets beat the Warriors in a seven-game series?
Why the Rockets have reason for optimism
Last year, the league - at least during the regular season - was split into two tiers. Tier One was the Warriors. Tier Two was everyone else.
This year, the Rockets have graduated into Tier One. Consider that their net rating (point differential per 100 possessions) of 10.0 is more than twice that of the Boston Celtics (4.9), and virtually three times that of the Cleveland Cavaliers (3.4).
The only team within shouting distance of the Warriors (11.6) and Rockets is the Toronto Raptors (8.8). But until Toronto proves to be competent in the postseason, they don’t belong in this conversation.
For Houston, it’s not just about how good they’ve been, but the ways in which they’ve been good. The additions of Chris Paul, P.J. Tucker, and Luc Mbah a Moute have given life to the Rockets’ defense, which is eighth in the league, after being 18th last year.
Houston has been active around the ball, ranking eighth in both deflections and loose ball recoveries, despite a few of their key defensive players missing significant time. Their defense is legitimately good, which is a slightly terrifying prospect.
But it’s still all about their offense, which, so far, has been tops in the league, better than Golden State’s. I could wax poetic about James Harden’s isolation abilities, or his retooled jumper, or Paul’s brilliance on and off-ball, but let’s be honest: Their offense starts and stops with the threes.
Houston attempts a league-high 43.1 three-pointers per game, 8.5 more than the next-highest team, and 13.1 more than the Warriors. The Rockets have the two league-leaders in three-point attempts per game, and five players who take at least six per night.
The rate at which Houston makes their threes (37.1%, a nice figure) isn’t all that important. When it comes to the playoffs, it’s the volume that potentially gives the Rockets a key advantage.
Those 13.1 additional attempts are essentially an opportunity for an additional 13.1 points per game. It’s 13.1 more times that Houston opts for a higher reward (an extra point), but with a higher risk (a lower percentage shot).
Over an 82-game season, a team’s three-point percentage normalizes. But in a seven-game sample, variance can play an enormous role. Houston bumping that 37.1% clip from deep up to 43, 45, or even 47% over the course of a seven-game series is very realistic.
The Warriors are still the best team in the league. Beating them requires finding a way to beat the odds and outperform the expected outcomes. The potential variance provided by an army of threes presents that opportunity.
Why Houston can’t be too confident
You read that last paragraph, right? The Warriors are still the best team in the league, and that is unlikely to change. They have the second-best defensive rating in the league, and are likely to be first by New Year’s. They have the second-best offensive rating, and were tops in the league when Stephen Curry went down with an injury.
But perhaps most importantly, they have a bench. Or, more specifically, they have a bench that their coach is willing to use.
This year, the Rockets have eight players averaging more than 25 minutes per game; the Warriors have five. What about players who get between nine and 25 minutes a night? Houston has one; Golden State has nine.
This is important for two reasons. First, Golden State simply has a larger number of reliable bench options that can be used to exploit mismatches, create new looks, and fill in for players with foul trouble or injuries.
Second, and more importantly, Mike D’Antoni’s infamous seven and eight-man rotations historically burn players out. Last year, Houston simply ran out of gas in the playoffs, and that’s not exactly news: nearly every year we witness a team with a short rotation look sluggish, lackadaisical, and simply worn out come spring.
If D’Antoni doesn’t learn to play the back of his bench, Harden, Paul and company will be a step slower than Golden State when the games really matter.
Ultimately, health is a huge factor for both teams. The Warriors have been without Curry, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green for various amounts of time this season, while the Rockets have played about half of their games without Paul.
The healthy team will likely be the favored team in a matchup, though I would aver that, even without Durant, the Warriors would win, because the team is so perfectly crafted around Curry’s abilities.
Hopefully the injury issue isn’t a factor, and these team can meet at full strength. Because “can the Rockets beat the Warriors?” isn’t just a question worth asking, but a question worth answering, as well.