The Warriors are an elite defensive team when locked in, but how they’d fare against the strange Rockets offense was up for debate. Led by James Harden and Chris Paul, the Rockets run pick and rolls to death, isolate on mismatches, and space the floor to mitigate double teams. At times, it has seemed difficult to stop for the Warriors.
The Warriors lost in Game 2 due to quite a few defensive miscues: they weren’t prepared for the Rockets to push in transition, and they kept losing track of Houston’s role players on the three point line.
In the beginning of Game 3, the Warriors tried a different defensive tactic: they tried to hedge the Rockets’ screens with Stephen Curry, and force the role players to make a play. Well, Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, and Clint Capela did, scoring at the rim with ease after the ensuing 4-on-3. Down 8 to 4 after less than three minutes, Coach Steve Kerr called timeout.
The Warriors then reverted to their strategy at the beginning of Game 1: switching everything. It’s simple, eliminates most of the risk of miscommunication, and forces the Rockets to score on their isolation plays. With Draymond Green quarterbacking the defense and providing help when necessary, it’s proved difficult to beat.
Yes, James Harden and Chris Paul can score on isolation plays, often making defenders look ridiculous in the process. But the rest of the Rockets can’t get open threes or layups without an undisciplined mistake, and the slow pace gives the Warriors plenty of time to rotate when necessary. As long as the Warriors defend well in transition, the Houston role players won’t be able to get much going.
The isolation plays haven’t been that great recently either. Chris Paul hasn’t been able to get much going at all, and I’m not scared of him dominating on switches. James Harden was magnificent in Game 1, but he was fairly quiet in Game 2 and 3. If the Warriors force Harden to play in isolation, he can’t much play better than in the first game, which was a comfortable Warriors win.
Furthermore, these isolations are tiring. Harden hasn’t looked spry in a while, and while he’s been okay offensively, he’s been a wreck defensively, giving little effort on the perimeter. Kevon Looney has been a huge surprise defensively, excelling as both a rim protector and perimeter stopper. Even Nick Young has been good on-ball.
Stephen Curry, who’s been isolated on the most, has held his own. He’s not the most athletic guy, but he remains engaged and contests shots well. He’s been vastly better than Harden defensively.
Curry and Harden have defended the most shots for their teams in the Western Conference Finals.— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) May 21, 2018
So far, Steph has had better luck. pic.twitter.com/C8RdsZltTj
If the Warriors contain the Rockets in transition and force Harden to make shots himself, the Warriors will win. Whenever Harden is out, Chris Paul hasn’t done nearly enough to run the offense, and the other Rockets can’t do it themselves. Clint Capela can be neutralized if the help defense leaves him at just the right time. Eric Gordon is not as a good three-point shooter as he thinks he is. Trevor Ariza isn’t a great passer, Luc Mbah a Moute cannot finish around the rim, and P.J. Tucker is not a great ballhandler. Against the Warriors’ length and versatility, they won’t be able to do much when the defense is set.
Andre Iguodala will likely be out for Game 4, which will hurt the defense. This means more Looney, which is totally fine for the Warriors. Quinn Cook, Nick Young, and Jordan Bell will probably get more minutes, which could hurt the defense. It would be best for these three to get minutes when Harden is resting if possible. Otherwise, just hope Harden gets exhausted from his isolations on them.
The Warriors are in good shape defensively heading into Game 4. The Rockets won’t be missing as many easy shots as in Game 3, but the Warriors can limit the quality of the shots they take. It’s up to the Rockets to quickly figure something else out.