The Warriors pulverized the Jazz one final time Monday to complete their second straight sweep and advance to their third consecutive Western Conference finals. Through eight postseason games, Golden State has amassed a +16.5 point differential – which, if maintained, would be the highest ever for an NBA champion—and scored seven double-digit victories, including a 121-95 Game 4 road win to eliminate Utah. Given this dominance, it’s tempting to respond to the inevitable “Rockets or Spurs?” question with the same dismissiveness that LeBron James offered when asked whether he preferred the Celtics or Wizards in the East finals: “It doesn’t matter.”
Regardless of its next opponent, Golden State will possess home-court advantage and several clear advantages. The Warriors will enjoy at least five days of rest before Game 1, while the Rockets or Spurs will be turning around quickly after a series that will go at least six games. On the health front, Golden State is in great shape, with Kevin Durant firing on all cylinders after a minor calf injury and Draymond Green narrowly avoiding a knee scare. By contrast, Houston’s Nene and San Antonio’s Tony Parker have both been lost to postseason-ending injuries. There’s also the unavoidable fact that the Warriors are head and shoulders above both the Rockets and Spurs when it comes to sheer talent.
But there is at least one reason for Golden State to have a rooting interest in its next opponent, and it’s stylistic. If the Warriors are going to face the Cavaliers in the Finals—which looks like a safe assumption given the first three-plus weeks of postseason play—they are going to need to slow down a potent, three-heavy offense led by an all-world scorer/playmaker. What’s the best way to prepare for LeBron James and Cleveland’s No. 1 ranked postseason offense? A tune-up against James Harden and the Rockets.
While Cleveland and Houston are by no means identical, they are far more similar than Cleveland and San Antonio. During the regular season, the Cavaliers ranked third in offensive efficiency and the Rockets ranked second. Cleveland ranked second in three-point attempts and Houston ranked first. In the postseason, the Cavaliers have ranked first in both offensive efficiency and three-pointers made. Meanwhile, Mike D’Antoni’s Rockets have led the way in three-point attempts. The Cavaliers and Rockets have also played at very similar paces—slightly above average in the postseason—while the Spurs have stuck to their slow-down style as much as possible.
Yes, there’s only one James, who has raised his game to obscene heights in the playoffs, averaging 34.4 PPG, 9 RPG and 7.1 APG to lead Cleveland to breezy sweeps of Indiana and Toronto. But the “Next Best Thing” is Harden, whose perimeter shooting, downhill style, pick-and-roll acumen and passing ability require the same type of multi-level defensive attention. During the regular season, Harden and James both ranked among the league leaders in scoring, drives and points generated by their assists, and they are almost always flanked by spread lineups that include at least three capable perimeter shooters. San Antonio has an elite lead scoring option in Kawhi Leonard, but he is not asked to generate nearly as much offense with the pass as either Harden or James.
The rough comparisons continue down the roster. Houston’s Ryan Anderson isn’t a mirror image of Kevin Love, but both are firmly in the stretch four mold. Rockets guard Lou Williams is no Kyrie Irving, but he pressures opponents in similar ways thanks to his off-the-dribble game, foul-drawing ability and three-point range. San Antonio, on the other hand, has often utilized traditional lineups with two big men and relies far more on its frontcourt players rather than dynamic guards and wings to generate its secondary scoring, especially now that Parker is out.
Golden State and Cleveland spent good chunks of the 2016 Finals playing smaller and more versatile lineups, as the Warriors lost center Andrew Bogut to injury and the Cavaliers went away from traditional center Timofey Mozgov for match-up purposes. While Golden State’s best unit—Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Durant, Green—would almost certainly prevail in the battle of mismatch issues against San Antonio’s bigger looks, the cleanest preparation for Cleveland’s four-out and five-out lineups would be to face a Houston team that almost always plays four-out and has even turned to the 6’10” Anderson as a small-ball center in the second round.
There are two other obvious reasons for Golden State to prefer Houston. First, the Warriors may well be without coach Steve Kerr for the West finals due to his indefinite health absence. If given the choice, no team fielding a back-up coach, in this case assistant Mike Brown, would elect to face San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, he of the five championship rings.
Second, there’s the familiarity factor. After all, the Warriors eliminated the Rockets in the 2015 West finals and the 2016 conference semifinals, both in five games. During Kerr’s three-year tenure, Golden State has posted an 18-3 record and a +12.4 point differential against Houston in the regular season and postseason combined. In four match-ups this season, the Warriors have held Harden to just 21.8 PPG, well below his 29.1 scoring average, and 31.5% shooting from the field. Comparatively, Golden State has enjoyed less success against San Antonio, going only 5-5 with a -1.7 point differential over the last three regular seasons.
After taking care of business against the Jazz, Green praised the Warriors’ presumptive Finals opponent. “I think Cleveland has been playing great basketball,” he said. “If you watch them, it’s been amazing.” Golden State still needs four more wins to set up this much-anticipated championship showdown, and it will be heavily favored to claim them against Houston or San Antonio. That said, the Rockets are both a more relevant preparation exercise and a less imposing foe.