Just over two years ago, Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey made headlines when he told ESPN radio, “It’s the only thing we think about, I think I’m not supposed to say that, but we’re basically obsessed with ‘How do we beat the Warriors?’
To chase that dream, the Rockets have built a roster of wing players that fit in well with a system that switches freely on defense. It’s worked to an extent, as demonstrated by the Rockets 3-0 regular season record against the champs coming into tonight’s game.
The Golden State Warriors offense thrives on ball movement, as proven by their league-leading 29.1 assists per game. But against the Rockets’ swarming defensive cloud of perimeter defenders, the vaunted offense stops working - it happened in the playoffs last season, and it’s been the case leading up to yesterday’s game.
The Warriors for the season average 7.6 isolation possessions per game. Vs. the Rockets this season they’ve averaged 16 per game.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) March 13, 2019
A new, large, wrinkle: DeMarcus Cousins as a big post threat - as a passer
Yeah, we know. Cousins hasn’t been great on either end of the court in his tenure with the Warriors so far. Decent? Good? Sure.
But the overall value of his signing here has been somewhere below Draymond Green’s initial hopes that it would be “devastating for everyone else.” A week ago we wrote about how urgently coach Steve Kerr and the Warriors need to rethink the Cousins experiment.
The change finally came last night, but it wasn’t as drastic as anything I previously proposed. Instead of removing him from the starting lineup, the Warriors are changing how Cousins is used. They split his court time to get him away from Draymond Green to help with spacing, and the results were promising: a season-high 27 points to go with his season-high seven assists - against one of our toughest opponents.
Rather than standing out on the edge and trying to create, DeMarcus Cousins was put into the pick and roll action as the screener. Because of how the Rockets scheme against the Warriors, this always resulted in a switch. And because of how the Rockets have built their team, that switch inevitably lead to Cousins being guarded by a smaller player.
Here’s the always excellent Anthony Slater of The Athletic, detailing how this played out in the first quarter last night:
The first starts out on the right wing. Cousins, guarded by Clint Capela, screens James Harden, who is guarding Klay Thompson. The Rockets switch it, the Warriors clear that side of the floor and dump it to Cousins against Harden in the post.
There will be times when he will attack Harden with the lone intention of scoring. But remember the other mismatch now on the board: Capela is guarding Thompson, an expert cutter.
It’s a tough pass to complete, but one that is well within Cousins’ wheel house. Here, I made a gif of the play, but it apparently it would block this article from Google AMP searches, so here’s the link to it.
In my call to reconsider how we use him, this is exactly what I was talking about. In order to be most effective within the Warriors system, we want Cousins to look for his own shot significantly less often.
But more than just using him differently, Cousins provides a counter to Houston’s scheme and their personnel.
Clint Capela couldn’t stop him. PJ Tucker got rolled over. Kenneth Faried was no help. Across the Rockets roster, there just doesn’t seem to be anyone who is big enough to bang with Cousins down low.
“I don’t really care (who guards me),” Cousins said. “I don’t think anyone can stop me 1-on-1. Period. You can put whoever you want on me, honestly.”
This is the counter that the Warriors have been hoping for against a Rockets team that built themselves to beat us. In the words of Charles Barkley, “they too small, Ernie.”
Last night it worked. The tables have turned, and now the Warriors have a size advantage that one of our top opponents struggled to answer.
Nice start for Cousins. He's active on both ends. Five points, three assists, two rebounds and he already taken a charge on Harden -- all in just six minutes.— Nick Friedell (@NickFriedell) March 14, 2019
After getting torched in the first half, the Rockets went away from their switches, trying instead to maintain one of their Centers on Cousins at all times. It didn’t matter.
While it hasn’t been the smoothest integration, last night really highlighted just how special Cousins is, and what his addition could mean to the Warriors in the post season, when games really matter.
27 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals, on 68% shooting for Cousins last night. It was just one game, but that’s a big problem for Houston to chew on.