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Can Warriors duplicate regular season success against Rockets?
1:29 | NBA
Can Warriors duplicate regular season success against Rockets?
Monday May 18th, 2015

Matchup: (1) Golden State Warriors vs. (2) Houston Rockets
Season Series: Warriors 4-0
Efficiency Rankings: Golden State (Off. rating: 2, Def. rating: 1, Net rating: 1) 
Houston (Off. rating: 12, Def. rating: 6, Net rating: 6)
Playoff Performance: Golden State beat (8) New Orleans 4-0 and (5) Memphis 4-2; Houston beat (7) Dallas 4-1 and (3) Los Angeles Clippers 4-3

The Matchup

“They ain’t that good.”
 
With those four words, uttered in mid-January, James Harden perfectly set the stage for Houston’s upcoming Western Conference finals showdown with Golden State. Harden delivered that assessment of the Warriors to his teammates in a pre-game huddle as a means of motivation, and his skepticism predictably ignited a back-and-forth with the likes of Draymond Green. The tension between the two franchises and their fan bases heightened further during a months-long MVP debate, which eventually saw Stephen Curry crowned instead of Harden.
 
The time for talk between the West’s top two seeds is officially over. The Warriors enter this series as heavy title favorites, and they will get its chance to prove that they are, as their 67-win regular season and steady postseason performance indicates, “that good.” Houston, fresh off a remarkable comeback from a 3-1 deficit in the conference semifinals, will get its chance to prove Harden correct by playing spoiler in an expectation-free atmosphere.
The major indicators all favor the Warriors. Not only did Golden State sweep the season series, it won all four games by double-digits. The Warriors were the only team to beat the Rockets four times during the regular season, and the 15.2 point differential in those losses was by far the worst endured by Houston. The Warriors were more efficient than the Rockets on both offense and defense during the regular season, and that has continued during the playoffs: Golden State ranks No. 2 on offense and No. 4 on defense in the postseason, while Houston ranks No. 5 and No. 12 in those categories. Golden State has posted a league-best +8 point differential in its 10 playoff games; Houston, remarkably, has actually been outscored by its opponents cumulatively during its 12 playoff games. 
 
The list goes on from there. Golden State enjoys home-court advantage and possesses a superior record at home (39-2 in the regular season compared to 30-11 for Houston). Golden State will host Game 1 on Tuesday after resting since their closeout win over Memphis on Friday, while Houston will have to turn around quickly after its Game 7 win on Sunday. The Rockets will be down two key players in Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas due to injuries, while the Warriors are in good health, save for a Marreese Speights calf strain. Tactically, Golden State showed the ability to make adjustments against Memphis while keeping its preferred starting unit together, while Houston was forced to juggle its starters mid-series against L.A.
 
There is, however, a measure of unpredictability at work here because both teams represent new blood. Indeed, Golden State last made it to the conference finals in 1976, more than a decade before Curry was born. Houston, meanwhile, hasn’t been here since 1997. Both coaches—Steve Kerr in his first year, and Kevin McHale in his sixth—are also entering uncharted waters.
 
The biggest wildcard of all is the pressure factor. The Warriors are competing against both the Rockets and the record books, as teams with their win total and +10 point differential dominance have almost always gone on to win the title. On the flip side, Houston wasn’t even supposed to be here—after being pushed to the brink of the brink in Game 6 by L.A.—and is now viewed as a heavy underdog by Las Vegas and the media consensus alike. Rarely do you see a conference finals that pits a No. 1 seed with so much to lose against a No. 2 seed with nothing to lose.

The Case For The Warriors

One wonders if, under the influence of truth serum, Kerr and his coaching staff would cop to elation at the Rockets’ comeback over the Clippers. While there are no easy opponents at this stage in the West, Golden State has to like the idea of Curry going up against ultra-veterans Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni, rather than Chris Paul, and trading Blake Griffin for Josh Smith sounds pretty good too.
 
After clawing out a tough semifinals series win over the defense-first, ground-and-pound Grizzlies, the Warriors now get to revert to form: Golden State and Houston finished No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in pace this season, and the conference finals should be played fast and loose by postseason standards. It’s fair to wonder whether any team can beat these Warriors four games out of seven when they are playing fully within their element.
Houston presents no glaring matchup problems for Golden State. Harden was one of the league’s top performers this season and he came up huge in Game 7, but the Warriors have plenty of long, athletic bodies (Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, Shaun Livingston) to use on him. Harden averaged 25.3 points and 5.3 assists, but he shot just 40.5% from the field and 24.1% from three; Houston will need a far more efficient performance from its leading scorer if it wants to win this series.
 

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Inside, the Warriors have a big, strong, rim-protecting center in Andrew Bogut to deploy on Dwight Howard, who has been on a tear during the playoffs. Howard averaged 15 points, and 10.5 rebounds in his two games against Golden State this season, which is manageable production from Golden State’s perspective, but he’s posting 17.2 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks in the playoffs. Look for the Warriors to pay Howard extra attention, thereby daring Houston’s complementary players to pick up the slack. Green will be in position to provide help, even though Smith has been shooting the deep ball at a much better rate during the playoffs than his horrific 28.5% career average.

 
The Curry/Thompson combination should apply serious stress to Houston’s perimeter defense. Curry had his way with the Rockets during the regular season, averaging 25.8 points and 8.3 assists while shooting 57.8% overall and 51.9% from deep, and McHale will surely miss Beverley. Trevor Ariza will likely get the thankless task of chasing Thompson around, leaving Harden to defend Harrison Barnes, who did well to provide consistent offense against the Grizzlies. Kerr maintains a loose leash with Curry, and this series could very well turn into his playground.
 
Unlike the Clippers, who struggled to get meaningful production from their reserves, the Warriors have capable bench players who won’t fall apart against the likes of Terrence Jones, Corey Brewer, and Prigioni. Golden State’s reserves (Iguodala, Livingston, Leandro Barbosa, David Lee, Festus Ezeli, Speights) give Kerr plenty of flexibility to go either big or small, and they will be key in keeping the pace up when Curry sits. The Rockets committed the third-most turnovers in the league this season, and the Warriors are outrageously deadly when they get out in transition.
 
Taking all of these factors together—recent history, matchups, top-down statistical output, playoff performance, health, depth, homecourt advantage, rest—and this is Golden State’s series to lose.

The Case For The Rockets

The Warriors are a daunting foe, but McHale has a few cards he can play with his team.
 
For starters, the Rockets enter the series on a true high. They were absolutely left for dead after Game 4, only to win three straight in impressive fashion. Houston’s Game 7 performance was a textbook closeout win, featuring steady play for 48 minutes, big-time games from the stars, plenty of supporting contributions, and a great home crowd.
Key to that momentum is the fact that both of Houston’s superstars are currently playing at a high level. After an uneven 2014 playoffs, Harden has been an all-around force, averaging 26.7 points and 8 assists in the playoffs. Importantly, he’s getting to the line 10.4 times per game, up steeply from last year’s playoffs. Howard, meanwhile, has moved past his knee injuries very nicely, finishing lob plays on one end and protecting the paint on the other. Back in March, Howard laid out a blueprint for the Rockets’ postseason in an interview with SI.com, and so far it’s gone almost exactly according to plan.
 

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That star duo isn’t doing it alone: Ariza, Smith, Brewer, Terry, and even Prigioni have had their moments in the playoffs, especially late in the Clippers series. Confidence and cohesion are unquantifiable, but the Houston team that eliminated L.A. on Sunday—thanks to 22 points from Ariza, 15 from Smith, and 11 from Brewer—would be a tough out for anybody, Golden State included.

 
Just as Golden State will be glad to return to its comfort zone after surviving Memphis, Houston will enjoy playing its third consecutive run-and-shoot series. McHale can plausibly tell his team to keep doing what it has been doing—which includes leading the playoffs in scoring—as facing Golden State won’t be radically different from going against Dallas or L.A.
 
Houston possesses the experience advantage: Howard and Harden have both been to the Finals, while Terry won a ring with the 2011 Mavericks. The Warriors’ core of Curry, Thompson, Barnes, Green, and Bogut has never advanced out of the second round before. Prior to the Clippers series, the Rockets hadn’t exactly cultivated a steely reputation, and they proved a lot of doubters wrong with their comeback.   
 
Even with all of those factors considered, McHale’s pitch to his team should really start with the expectations game. Something like, “Golden State is facing comparisons to Michael Jordan’s Bulls, and we are supposed to be on vacation.” Or, “The consensus is that we are supposed to lose in five games, but we supposedly lost the last series after Game 4.” Or, “They beat us four times during the regular season, so anything less than a sweep will be a disappointment to outsiders.” Ceding the pressure is always an advantageous spot, and that’s especially true in a series that includes two teams that like to push the pace and jack outside shots.

The X-Factor: Josh Smith

Relying on Smith can be both a thrilling and terrifying proposition, and Houston has experienced both during the playoffs. In the first four games against the Clippers, Smith was a combined 9-for-33 (27.3%), and the Rockets went 1-3. After moving into the Game 5 starting lineup, Smith shot 15-for-26 (57.7%), including a huge fourth-quarter outburst in Game 6, and Houston won three straight to take the series.
Against an offense as potent and multidimensional as Golden State’s, it’s quite possible for Houston to get strong play from both Harden and Howard and still lose handily. The Rockets needed every bit of scoring they could muster from Smith, Brewer, and Terry against the Clippers, and they might need even more against the Warriors. From that group, Smith’s contributions are the most vital, as Houston is 6-1 in the postseason when he scores in double figures. In this series, Smith will be counted on to offset Green’s scoring and, assuming his outside shooting doesn’t suddenly run cold, help open up space in the middle for Howard.

Telling Stat: 18.3

Protecting the rock is going to be vital to Houston’s chances of springing the upset. During the regular season, the Rockets averaged 18.3 turnovers during their four games against the Warriors, a ghastly figure that actually matched their assist total in those games. In the postseason, Houston is averaging a league-worst 15.3 turnovers per game, and sloppy play was a key factor during the three losses to L.A.
 
Thanks to its fast and improvisational style, Golden State is prone to turning the ball over as well, but Houston simply can’t afford to give away scoring opportunities. The Warriors were 23-2 this season when they forced 18+ turnovers, and they led the league with 19.7 points off turnovers per game. Golden State has compiled an 8-2 record in the playoffs, even though they haven’t forced more than 16 turnovers in any game. In other words: this series will be over quickly if Houston can’t show significant improvement when it comes to the turnover game.

The Pick: Warriors in 6

Golden State displayed a champion’s ability to respond to adversity and adjust against Memphis. If the Warriors hadn’t endured that test, perhaps it would be easier to envision the Rockets riding their positive momentum to shock the world. Instead, look for Curry to fully exploit his matchup advantage and keep Golden State’s dream season rolling. 

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