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Western Conference Finals Series Preview

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Key matchups, series predictions, and everything in between.

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NBA: Golden State Warriors at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

How do we measure the Rockets’ regular season success vs the champs?

The Rockets have a record of 50-5 when their “Big 3” of Chris Paul, James Harden, and Clint Capela have played together this season. Houston also won the season series against the Warriors, 2-1. They are the number one seed, and have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. James Harden is the likely league MVP.

This series is going to be epic. The Rockets have significantly improved since last postseason, and are coming into the series as the top seed, but will it be enough to defeat a Warriors team that has improved a bit on their own and may have been playing possum all season?

Key matchups and strategies

There’s no shortage of story lines in this series, and the matchups are interesting at every turn. Here are a few of the most critical matchups and how both teams should try and take advantage of them.

Battle for the first quarters - The Warriors have developed a rhythm to their games this season: start off slow, and then blow ‘em out of the water in the 3rd quarter. But there’s a dangerous reliance on those third quarter runs to atone for their earlier on-court malfeasances. Unfortunately, it just so happens the Rockets have made a pattern of their own - dominant first quarters; as per Anthony Slater of the Athletic:

The Warriors famously ran away from teams in the third quarter this season. Their +377 differential in 82 games was the best of any quarter in the NBA.

The only other quarter that neared that mark: the first-quarter Rockets. Houston outscored teams by 360 combined points in 82 first quarters this season, jumping out to massive leads and cruising from there.

I went and looked through the box scores, and the Warriors were +21 in first quarters against the Pelicans, but only a meager +6 against the Spurs. It would be real nice to not start these games with an assumed deficit. The Warriors are a veteran team with great coaching, so hopefully they’re aware of this and know they have to come out immediately in “destroy everything” mode.

The Dubs are at full strength - The Warriors didn’t have the Death Lineup/Hamptons 5 available for any of Rockets’ games this year, as Andre Iguodala missed two games, and Kevin Durant missed one. As they showed the poor New Orleans Pelicans, this lineup is the champ’s best combination of floor spacing, playmaking, speed, and defensive activity. If you’re going to claim to be better than the Warriors, you should probably beat their best lineup at least once.

Steve Kerr, ever reluctant to let go of his Strength in Numbers, finally released the Kraken against the New Orleans Pelicans. In just 37 minutes of actions, that five outscored the Pelicans 113-64. The Rockets haven’t seen that version of the Warriors yet (no one has); Houston’s ability to handle the full firepower of our most potent lineup is going to be a defining factor in this series.

Ok, Warriors fans, here’s why the Dubs are going to win

In spite of Houston’s offseason adjustments, the Warriors are still perfectly composed to beat the Rockets. Just think, “what would you want to beat this Houston juggernaut?”

An elite defense? So far this postseason, the Warriors have limited their opponents to just 99.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s by far the best defensive rating of any team in the playoffs, almost three full points better than the second place Rockets.

First off, you’ll need a defender (or three) that can slow down James Harden. The Warriors have that, and more. Klay Thompson will get the primary assignment. His objective: slow down Harden without fouling him. In the two games Thompson played against Harden this year, he covered 77 possessions but gave up no free throws. Zero.

No free throws puts Harden into the realm of “above average” rather than “elite.” And this isn’t a one-time thing. To check out the pattern, look at the matchup numbers over the past five years or so:

Oh, you want more?

What if I tell you we also have an answer for their second-best player? We can talk about the marginal players as well, but if a Playoff series is defined by what happens with your best players, there’s lots to like based on recent results.


If Houston manages to win, it will take...

Everything I wrote about above would have to swing the Rockets’ way. Paul and Harden would have to play at least as well as their season averages, and both would have to personally outplay Curry and Thompson, repsectively. Beyond that, the Rockets would have to find some solution to the Hamptons 5.

Eric Gordon, Clint Capela, and the rest of the Rockets bench are going to have to come up big. Gordon in particular has struggled historically against us, and Capella will need to do enough damage on both ends of the court to not get run out of the game by the Warriors’ high pace and spread offense.

Capela presents a similar dilemma as Anthony Davis in terms of the athletic lob threat and is an excellent down-hill weapon in the pick-and-roll that Harden and Paul spam constantly. Additionally, the Rockets love to initiate switches with their pick plays to force the center to guard Harden or Paul. Paul exploited Rudy Gobert, a defensive player of the year candidate, with this move about a billion times and dropped 41 in a closeout Game 5.

Clearly, the Warriors need a player with the strength to bang with Capela, the quick feet to stick with either Paul or Harden’s dribble dances, and the intelligence to not give up cheap fouls. Of course, Green will pick up that immense job when the Hampton 5 is out there, but he can’t play 48 minutes. It would appear Kevon Looney would be the guy they have groomed this season to take over those responsibilities. Also, Jordan Bell is an intriguing option here.

We haven’t even talked about Kevin Durant, but needless to say, that’s another guy Houston will need to turn into a low efficiency scorer if they hope to win this.

Let’s do this: what’s your series prediction?

Duby: I’m going to be conservative here and take the Dubs in 6. My thinking is that I’d probably default to saying Dubs in 5, but given how things have gone this year, I’m adding a couple of extra losses in for safety. That said. I bought my tickets to game four, just in case.

Nate: I think there’s reason to think it could go six... but only if the Warriors mess around for a game or two.

Daniel Hardee aka GoldBloodedKing: Remember the 90s kids’ TV show, “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers”? Every episode had the same sequence:

Evil monster is sent to earth. The Rangers fight it, but struggle early on. The demon thinks it has the advantage and magically grows as large as Godzilla. The Rangers respond by summoning giant flying dinosaur-robots with lasers that combine into one giant super robot called “Ultrazord’. In the end, the Ultrazord destroys the goofy looking beast and the Rangers move on to their next episode.

The Warriors clearly have an Ultrazord with their Death Lineup. I believe the Rockets are just another cheesy, predictable behemoth that will ultimately fall to the Warriors’ teamwork and superpowers. I might be the only person on the planet gold-blooded enough to call for a sweep.

Then again, if LeBron James can destroy the East’s fraudulent #1 seed in four games, why can’t we do the same in our conference?

Warriors in 4.

Thomas Bevilacqua: I think six too but that’s because I’m the cautious type.

Kim Stubbe: We win in 6. I think it will be competitive because their squad is super hungry and they will catch our occasional lackadaisical play. But then we will get mad and super focused and beat them soundly.