The Rockets have regained their strength with Chris Paul and Clint Capela back from injury, newly added Kenneth Faried has played well and James Harden is still a top-three MVP candidate. But while Houston is trending upward it's worth asking, are the Rockets the best team to defeat the Warriors in the playoffs?
On the latest edition of The Crossover podcast, Chris Mannix and Rohan Nadkarni debate whether the Rockets are legitimate threats in the Western Conference.
(Listen to the latest Crossover podcast here. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Chris Mannix: Let’s talk about the Rockets. They went to Golden State on Saturday and they win without James Harden. Chris Paul has a great game—they get scoring from a bunch of guys—the Rockets are looking more and more like the team we saw last year. Do you look at that win against Golden State as a one-off or do you look at the fact that they have a pretty good record against Golden State the last couple of years? They were up 3-2 in the Western Conference finals last year. Is this Rockets team a legitimate threat to Golden State in the West?
Rohan Nadkarni: The win over Golden State on Saturday night means absolutely nothing. Every year we say this with the Warriors—one team beats them and we are like, ‘Oh my God’. Just look at what the Warriors did to Denver when people like me were hyping up the Nuggets and the Warriors said, 'You know what, we are going to care about a regular season game' and they put up a historic first quarter.
As soon as James Harden was ruled out, I knew the Rockets were winning that game. That was the Warriors saying ‘If you guys don’t give a s—, we don’t give a s—‘. James Harden has been incredible, there is no doubt about it—and we can debate whether he is going to wear down by the time we get to the playoffs—and it was encouraging to see Chris Paul have a big game. Chris Paul last year, like, pound-for-pound was an MVP-level player. He just didn’t play in enough games and he was having an outstanding season last year. He hasn’t been quite the same this year not just from an injury standpoint but on the court he hasn’t had the same impact. He has already taken a step back this year. But what bothers me about the Rockets more than anything else is defense.
They are at the bottom third of the league. Last year they were a top-10 defensive team. They somehow coaxed Jeff Bzdelik out of retirement to come fix the defense and it hasn’t really worked. It will help when Clint Capela is fully healthy and I think Iman Shumpert can help. Can they get another guy on the buyout market? But I think the Rockets’ success against the Warriors last year was because they were building their entire defense from day one of training camp to match up with Golden State. They did a great job against the Warriors in the Western Conference finals, taking them out of their game, forcing a lot of Kevin Durant isolations. I just don’t see that from them this year and that’s why I can’t call them a legitimate threat.
As great as Harden is, when he hit that game-winning three and on the floor he told Draymond Green a very bad word. I was like, ‘Yeah, this is awesome. This is cool as hell. I love the Rockets’. But I just don’t have faith in a bottom-10 defense defeating Golden State in the playoffs.
Mannix: I don’t have the numbers for what this team is with Faried or just the entire lineup altogether. That is the team that I am looking for because there is only finite source of information available about the Faried, Rivers, Harden, Paul, Capela lineup. That’s the lineup we have to see if they can defend at a high-level. But they are 3-0 against Golden State. And Golden State is going to have a DeMarcus Cousins problem—because Cousins is just getting pick-and-rolled to death. And watching that Rockets game, it was just Chris Paul pick-and-roll on DeMarcus Cousins. A couple of them weren’t highlight worthy but that is what they are doing all day long.
And DeMarcus Cousins is already starting to grumble a little bit about his role with this team and not about finishing games, but the reality is if you can’t defend the bread-and-butter play at a high level then you can’t be out there. It has to be a smaller lineup with either Draymond Green or [Kevon] Looney at the five. I just wonder if that becomes a source of friction within that team. Even though DeMarcus Cousins has said the right things about being on this team and rehabbing his body, he can’t play against point guards like Chris Paul because they are going to put him in pick-and-rolls until the sun comes down.