It’s been just a handful of days since the Golden State Warriros last played, but with the amount of coverage everyone has been putting out, this has felt like the drawn-out “Super Bowl” week of basketball coverage.
But now, finally, it is time to put the rubber to the road, as the Warriors find themselves starting a series on the road for the first time in a long time. Can the Houston Rockets handle the new-look Hamptons 5? Will the Warriors wilt under the relentless barrage of three pointers that the Rockets launch? We will start to find out the answers tonight.
WHAT: Western Conference Finals: Golden State Warriors @ Houston Rockets
WHEN: Monday, May. 14, 2018, 6:00 PM
WHERE: Toyota Center - Houston, TX
WHO IS BUILT TO BEAT WHO?
Sorry, should that be “whomst?”
Anyways, after storming through the playoffs last year (winning 16 of their 17 games en route to a title) the Warriors did essentially nothing in the offseason. They didn’t have to. Adding Kevin Durant to the winningest team of all time was the move. The only roster changes since the last Western Conference Finals is around the fringes, with one guy (Omri Casspi) not even with the team anymore and another (NIck Young) hardly getting off the bench.
The Rockets, meanwhile, went in for a major roster overhaul - bringing in two defense-first wing players (PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute) and an elite ball handler in Chris Paul.
This move was a shift away from non-defending floor stretchers like Ryan Anderson, in exchange for aggressively versatile utility players - who both happen to guard Kevin Durant’s position. Durant was basically tied with Stephen Curry for leading scorer against the Rockets in the regular season, and much like the Warriors in general, Durant has looked a lot sharper and more dangerous in the postseason.
Both sides have enough dangerous weapons to force adjustments from opposing coaches, but the Warriors are still coming in as the favorite. In spite of a worse regular season record, and in spite of the Rockets roster adjustments specifically designed to slow the Warriors down, this is still the Warriors’ series to lose.
And they can start by stealing home court tonight.
A contrast in styles
Steve Kerr made the point earlier in the season that these two teams do not actually play all that similar. The Rockets’ offense is designed to collect as many three pointers as possible, while the Warriors tend to run a more egalitarian ball movement-based offense. Houston led the league in three point shot attempts (by a wide margin). At just north of 42 attempts per game, these attempts dwarfed the Warriors - who ranked around the middle of the pack at 29 attempted threes per game.
Mike D’Antoni took his fast-paced offense, and married it to Moreyball - which eschews mid-range shots in favor of a strong preference for threes and layups (which just happens to be James Harden’s forte). It’s a simple offense - on-ball screens, and then isolation scoring opportunity - but an effective one.
In contrast, the Warriors’ offense strives for efficiency without any huge preference for certain shots. Using our sharpshooters in a variety of ways, in combination with a motion and pass-heavy scheme, Kerr’s Warriors led the league in effective field goal percentage (a measure that adjusts for the varying values of three-pointers and such). Kerr’s goal is to get the best looks for his players, whether that be hitting a back cut on a layup, a (rare) isolation play or hitting a shooter off a screen. Primarily we are looking for our top three scorers on offense (because they are Durant, Curry, and Thompson), but the scheme is designed to utilize every player when the opportunity presents itself.
The Warriors were first in off-ball screens in the regular season, the Rockets 30th. The Warriors were 20th in isolation plays, the Rockets first. Two great teams, two contrasting styles. Here, @MarkDeeksNBA & I look at this, plus how GS can irritate Harden defensively. @NBAUK pic.twitter.com/580CPP7h71— Max Whittle (@max_whittle) May 12, 2018
Now, defensively, both teams are fairly similar in that they try and limit three point attempts and work to funnell drives into their rim protectors. The Warriors’ offense is the one that would seem to be significantly better positioned to handle the other teams’ defense, but if the Rockets’ role players get hot from outside, that may not matter since we are likely conceding a few of those looks in exchange for a tighter coverage on Harden.
Are these the “real Finals”?
Remember that pretty much everyone (besides TheGoldBloodedKing) called for something besides a sweep. This Rockets team is the real deal, and even if we look better on paper, this is probably the most difficult team left for us to get through in the playoffs.