Zach Lowe on Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors


The Rockets have been getting ready for this all season — longer, even — and here’s what they face: a Warriors group that’s 24-Three within the playoffs since signing Kevin Durant. Houston has to beat them 4 occasions in seven video games. Golden State with Durant has misplaced thrice in six playoff sequence. Final season’s Cavaliers may need been one of many biggest single-season groups ever, and positively have been one of many biggest offensive groups ever. They received one sport.

However these Rockets have been constructed over the summer time, after which tweaked midseason, particularly for this sequence. They’re 50-5 when all three of James Harden, Clint Capela and Chris Paul play. By any measure, they signify essentially the most profound problem the Warriors have confronted within the Durant-Stephen Curry period.

They will match any type: quick, sluggish, massive, small. Hell, they may be capable of dictate the type of this sequence. Some will solid this as a battle for the soul of basketball: isolation showboats and the maths geniuses behind them towards the protectors of the attractive sport. There’s a kernel of reality there. The truth is Golden State has the instruments to win each types of video games. Durant has inoculated them from any stylistic limitations. They’ve seen each switching scheme in existence, and know tips on how to break them with sensible cuts and passes.

Let’s dig into among the main questions and X-factors:

• Houston can encompass Harden with 4 good defenders, and Golden State normally provides one safe-ish place to cover him. The matchups can be enjoyable, even when they change in a blur on each possession.

We do not even know but who the Warriors will begin: the Demise Lineup, with Draymond Inexperienced at middle, or a extra conventional lineup most likely that includes Kevon Looney rather than Andre Iguodala. If Golden State begins small, Houston can stash Harden on Iguodala, slot Capela onto Inexperienced, Paul onto Curry, Trevor Ariza on Klay Thompson, and the immovable PJ Tucker onto Durant. In opposition to greater lineups, Houston might match up throughout positions — with Harden on Thompson (gulp) — or slide Harden onto Inexperienced, and even Looney.

I’d wager (reluctantly) on the Warriors beginning Sport 1 with Looney. He defended Anthony Davis effectively, and it simply looks as if the Steve Kerr transfer: begin with somebody who can physique up Capela, and preserve one ace within the gap. Golden State can be skinny on wings — facilities compose nearly half of the roster for some purpose — and beginning all the very best ones deprives the bench of some pop. Good staggering can mitigate that, however the Warriors are additionally involved about overtaxing Iguodala.

• Whether or not Golden State’s facilities serve any function on this sequence can be certainly one of its pivot factors. Solely JaVale McGee — and basketball gods assist any coach who counts on McGee on this spherical, towards this opponent — can do the Rudy Gobert/Pau Gasol “stand near the rim and raise your arms” factor and hassle Harden. None of them can reliably change onto Paul or Harden. Looney will pull it off certainly one of each three or 4 occasions, however he is strolling a tightrope. Kerr may attempt Jordan Bell sooner or later for added pace.

The Warriors know all of this, and have generally gone a 3rd route: trapping Harden with their facilities.

That looks as if a horrible concept. Harden and Paul will break up some traps, or slip passes to their screeners, who can then work Four-on-Three with shooters round them. However ever since David Thorpe advised it on my podcast Friday, I’ve come round to it as an fascinating tactic — in small doses: take away the ball from Harden and Paul, and power Houston’s screeners to make performs.

A few of these screeners — Tucker particularly — are fairly good at that. Capela has improved, however to not the purpose the place he scares you catching the ball 20 toes out. And in at the least some alignments, the spot-up guys flanking them can be barely above-average Three-point shooters — not elite marksmen. Fly at Ariza, Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, and they’re going to miss a good chunk.

• That is among the most elementary swing components: Whose blah Three-point shooters make extra? Houston will go away Iguodala and Inexperienced open. Golden State will do the identical with the above Rockets, although maybe not as blatantly.

• Associated: I am unable to wait to see how daring Houston is enjoying its finest capturing lineups. The Rockets are unattainable to protect with all three of Paul, Harden, and Eric Gordon on the ground. However Houston sacrifices just a little protection to pump up its long-range capturing. Do they even dare play Gerald Inexperienced towards an offense that may power him to make a half-dozen quick-hitting choices on each possession? (Ryan Anderson has been excised exactly as a result of he has such a tough time on this matchup. They could mud him off in the event that they get determined for scoring, however in any other case, I might be shocked to see a lot of him.) Do they fight Ariza at energy ahead?

They need to completely dial up the capturing quotient when two of Golden State’s stars are on the bench. However towards the Warriors’ finest lineups, Houston may want at the least two of Ariza, Mbah a Moute, and Tucker. They could want all three, and so they have outscored opponents by a preposterous 25 factors per 100 possessions in 222 minutes with that trio, per Apparently, solely 15 of these minutes additionally featured each Paul and Harden.

That lineup — Paul, Harden, Ariza, Mbah a Moute, Tucker — might work, and I might wager the Rockets use it. Paul and Harden deliver sufficient star energy to compensate for the so-so capturing. Nonetheless: Every other lineup that includes these three wing stoppers may have bother scoring towards Golden State.

• Again to Golden State’s facilities: Looney has been essentially the most steady defender amongst them. The Warriors performed round with dropping him again towards Harden and Paul, and he managed:

David West won’t be able to handle constantly. Houston goes to assault him on each possession he performs. The Warriors might disguise their facilities on Tucker or Mbah a Moute, and slot Inexperienced or Durant onto Capela, however then what’s the level of even enjoying these facilities? They provide nothing defending wing gamers, and it isn’t as if you’re driving out their defensive limitations due to what they carry on the opposite finish.

The Warriors want a ton of Inexperienced at middle, no matter whether or not they begin video games that approach. These lineups characteristic 4 guys who can credibly defend any Houston participant, together with each Harden and Paul. They’re super-fast, and the Warriors have some curiosity in pushing tempo.

• Houston is weak to calculated transition rushes. The Rockets typically arrange their offense with a shooter in every nook, and Capela beneath the rim. If Harden drives and misses, the Warriors have an opportunity to run with 4 Rockets loitering approach under the foul line. That’s dying. In opposition to most groups, Houston’s flooring stability does not matter. In opposition to the Warriors — and particularly the Warriors with Inexperienced at middle — it issues. A kind of nook shooters goes to need to loop again towards half courtroom sooner than regular.

• A associated battleground: turnovers. Houston has coughed it up on solely 9.eight % of its possessions within the playoffs, a comically low quantity that might shatter the all-time single-season report. That’s one good thing about slowing down and enjoying isolation basketball: It is exhausting to show it over when you do not cross. If that quantity stays in the identical ballpark, the Rockets enhance their possibilities. Ditto if the Warriors undergo too many bouts of the type of boastful sloppiness that has often undone them.

• With all of Thompson, Iguodala, Durant and Inexperienced on the ground, Golden State can simply disguise Curry on somebody among the many Ariza/Tucker/Mbah a Moute group. He’ll most likely begin on Paul, as a result of Curry is a prideful — and considerably underrated — defender, and since Kerr normally offers Curry an opportunity to protect his personal quantity earlier than pivoting. He’ll defend Gordon rather a lot, too. In opposition to some Houston lineups, there will not be a better option. Gordon has to impression this sequence with bullying drives on Curry, blow-bys towards Inexperienced on switches, and pull-up 3s.

However sooner or later, Curry will slide over to a much less threatening participant. Thompson, Iguodala, and Durant can break up the Paul/Harden assignments. Will probably be fascinating to see how Kerr deploys Durant on protection. Thompson has normally drawn the Harden task. If Curry is hiding on a wing kind, that would go away Durant and Iguodala left as main defenders on Paul. Guarding Paul over lengthy stretches is likely to be an excessive amount of for Iguodala. We would see extra of Durant on Paul than regular matchups would dictate. (He guarded him at occasions within the common season.)

Golden State may even flip these assignments round, and have Durant examine Harden whereas Thompson hounds Paul. Bear in mind: The final time these groups met within the playoffs, Thompson had sufficient bother with Harden’s battering ram physicality that Kerr finally assigned Harrison Barnes to Harden. Durant might even defend Capela, leaving Inexperienced on Tucker — and permitting Inexperienced to rove as a assist protection menace. (Kerr experimented with this within the common season, too.)

We’ll see all the pieces. Shaun Livingston will get possibilities defending each Houston stars. Each groups will change a lot, particular person matchups may not even matter. However Curry’s will. When issues get dirty, Houston will hunt Curry, and have his man display screen for Harden. That’s one motion the Warriors will attempt not to modify; they do not need Curry on Harden. Harden overpowers him, plows to the rim, and both lays the ball in or finds an open teammate.

The much less harmful the screener, the much less harmful it’s to have Curry lunge off of that participant, reduce off Harden, after which scurry again to his authentic man. That’s one good thing about slotting him onto Ariza or Mbah a Moute. It is nonetheless harmful, although. All the pieces is harmful towards Houston.

• Will probably be tempting for Houston to sluggish the tempo, look forward to all of Golden State’s switching to provide a mismatch, and assault it. Turning the sequence right into a rock battle may even signify its finest likelihood.

However the Rockets need to watch out taking that technique to an excessive. Harden tends to bask in dance-offs towards wing defenders who do not even represent any type of mismatch, and laze into step-back 3s. That has been a superb shot for him — possibly the defining shot of his (seemingly) MVP season. He’ll make some.

I doubt he makes sufficient towards Golden State’s most succesful defenders. Houston is not going to win this sequence if Harden falls into the lure of launching too many semi-contested step-backs. It saps Houston’s offense of its rhythm. He must drive extra — to make use of his one-on-one sport to both get to the rim, or unlock simpler pictures for teammates.

• That is another excuse Capela stands as such an vital participant. He’s by far Houston’s finest screen-setter. When he’s on the ground, Harden is extra more likely to name for a decide as a substitute of hoarding the offense. Sure, Capela clutters the paint when Harden chooses to drive one-on-one. That is OK. He and Harden have a pleasant chemistry making performs in tight confines across the basket.

No different Rocket can duplicate Capela’s rim-running and shot-blocking. He’s their solely supply of offensive rebounding — they’ve rebounded a pitiful 12 % of their very own misses within the playoffs with Capela on the bench — and scrounging a couple of second-chance factors is at all times helpful towards the Warriors’ smaller lineups. I am unsure Houston can win with out Capela giving a strong 32-plus minutes in each sport. How Capela fares towards Curry on switches — and whether or not Curry’s knee permits for his twitchiest dribbling flurries — is maybe an important bellwether.

• Will probably be stylish to color this sequence as a referendum on Paul and Harden. Nonsense. There could be no disgrace dropping to this Golden State group. Paul has already confirmed his playoff bona fides. Harden has been to the Finals, additional than Paul, however he’s the one with extra legacy factors at stake — particularly after his meltdown towards San Antonio final season.

The Rockets can’t afford Harden falling again into dangerous habits and previous tendencies. Too many step-backs will not reduce it. Houston must lean extra on these units the place Harden and Paul zoom up from the corners, bolt off a pindown display screen, and dash right into a handoff on the high of the arc. Nobody has defended these.

Harden ought to have the vitality for that, and to defend at his finest. That’s a whole lot of why Houston pursued Paul — to ease Harden’s burden, and protect vitality for this second. Houston can attempt to disguise Harden on Iguodala, Inexperienced, Livingston, even Looney — anybody however Thompson, Curry, and Durant. They can not financial institution on that, although. Houston’s switching and Golden State’s turbo pushes imply Harden can be on a type of guys right here and there. And in Golden State’s system of whirring screens and cuts, everyone seems to be a menace. Each defender needs to be on excessive alert.

If Harden is a weak hyperlink, the Warriors will exploit him. If he fights and holds his personal, the Rockets have an opportunity.

• With Durant, the Warriors are geared up to play the slower, mismatch-preying sport Houston prefers. They ran the Curry-Durant pick-and-roll extra in the previous couple of video games towards New Orleans, and switching towards that normally leaves a smaller defender — Paul at occasions — on Durant. Paul has a knack for burrowing beneath taller gamers, and chopping them down. That is not sufficient towards one of many purest scorers in historical past.

Houston may be capable of slide Paul someplace else, and guard the Curry-Durant combo with two of the Ariza/Tucker/Mbah a Moute trio — that means they might change with out dropping a lot measurement on Durant. However once more: Rigging the matchups that approach will not be simple.

Houston should be very cautious shading assist towards Durant within the publish. Slough away from Inexperienced, and he pops as much as display screen for Curry, Thompson, or another shooter. With Inexperienced’s man away from the motion, that shooter is broad open if Inexperienced’s decide connects. The Warriors burned New Orleans with this motion time and again. The Rockets have seen it, too:

(Houston dedicated a defensive Three-second violation simply as Durant was about to cross to Curry.)

Capela is conscious of it, and is aware of tips on how to disrupt Durant with out straying too removed from Inexperienced:

• Houston has dwelling courtroom, and the right software set to emphasize Golden State. I simply preserve coming again to Golden State’s expertise, elite capturing, and stylistic versatility. Warriors in 6.

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