Though the basketball world will be laser-focused on Selection Sunday festivities, NBA will once again be putting on a stellar show on Sunday. Perhaps the most aesthetically titillating of this stable of games will be when the Golden State Warriors will descend to Texas to take on the Houston Rockets.
For those who are tired of watching college basketball’s slowed-down, methodical approach, this game could be the perfect elixir. The Rockets and Warriors are both top-10 scoring teams and rank in the bottom 10 defensively, so the winner of this game may have to outscore Georgetown and Syracuse’s combined point total from Friday to get a victory.
Houston walks into the Toyota Center fresh off a thrilling comeback victory over the Timberwolves. James Harden, who was a bit of a question-mark heading into the game, had 37 points, seven rebounds and eight assists as the Rockets came from 20 points behind to win.
The victory for Houston sent it into a tie in the loss column for sixth place in the Western Conference—with these Warriors. Golden State was embarrassed at home on Friday by the Bulls, where the team fell behind by as many as 36 points before losing 113-95.
With playoff positioning on the line, this should be a stellar contest. Here is a complete breakdown of everything you need to know prior Sunday’s game between the Rockets and Warriors.
Start Time: Sunday, March 16, at 7 p.m. ET
Location: Toyota Center in Houston
Team Records: Golden State Warriors (37-30) vs. Houston Rockets (36-30)
TV Info: CSN Houston
Live Stream: NBA League Pass (Pay Service)
Warriors Injury Report (via CBS Sports)
SG Brandon Rush, Knee, Out for Season
Rockets Injury Report (via CBS Sports)
Key Storyline: The Race for the No. 6 Seed
The Warriors and Rockets head into Sunday’s game tied in the loss column for the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference. Golden State has been perched in that spot ever since Denver decided to put its big-boy pants on over the past couple of months, and considering the state of Kobe Bryant’s ankle, Houston may be its only competition for that spot.
Why is the No. 6 seed so important? Because, as of now, the Oklahoma City Thunder sit in the No. 2 spot—making whomever ends up as the seventh seed a sitting duck.
And while it would be a good story to fill columns and blog posts, not even James Harden wants to play the Thunder in the first round—especially with Memphis pulling into the No. 3 slot as of Saturday.
The Grizzlies have been vastly improved since the Rudy Gay deal, but they still cannot space the floor whatsoever and are vulnerable enough that an offense-first team like Houston or Golden State could create a scare. It’s the difference between “let’s hope we make it to five, guys” and “maybe we have a shot here.”
With the Rockets already clinching the tiebreaker in their matchups earlier this season, this game will lead to playoff-like intensity from the Warriors. Golden State cannot afford to lose this game. If it does, that No. 6 seed may never get recovered.
Key Matchup: James Harden vs. The Warriors’ Atrocious Pick-and-Roll Defense
Popular opinion alert: Golden State is a not-so-good defensive team. If a studio decided to remake Zoolander as a basketball movie starring a steely-faced point guard (Stephen Curry), you may say the plot payoff would be the creation of the Stephen Curry Center for Children Who Can’t Shoot So Good and Wanna Learn to Play Defense Good Too.
Alas, this (unfortunately) isn’t a movie, and the Warriors are stuck in defensive purgatory. After a surprisingly strong start to the season, Golden State is back to playing matador defense. Over its past 20 games, the team has allowed 106.9 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, which would rank on-par with New Orleans for the third-worst rate in the league.
In particular, the Warriors are among the league’s worst teams at defending a pick-and-roll ball handler. Synergy Sports, which tracks each team’s possession for the NBA, has the Warriors at 24th in the league this season in points per possession (0.83) against pick-and-roll ball handlers.
In the macro sense, this is what makes Houston such a bad matchup for Golden State. The Rockets are one of the more pick-and-roll-heavy teams in the league—thanks mostly to James Harden and Jeremy Lin—and are better at it than any other team in the NBA. Synergy Sports tracks them at 0.89 points per possession when a pick-and-roll ball handler finishes his possession in a field goal attempt, turnover or free-throw attempt—the best mark in the NBA.
Harden is obviously the biggest reason for the team-wide excellence. He ranks fourth in the NBA in points per possession as a pick-and-roll finisher (1.02 PPP) and uses over a quarter of his possessions in that set, per Synergy Sports.
Though Harden hasn’t been particularly ascendant against Golden State this season, there is still plenty of video evidence to show why that is likely to change on Sunday. Here is a look at one of the rare instances in the team’s last meeting—Harden went just 3-of-17 from the field—where Golden State’s pick-and-roll defense left the Rockets guard with an open three-pointer.
As you can see, Andrew Bogut (the help defender) got lost in rotation and is nowhere near Harden when he releases. That’s a double-sided decision from Bogut. He doesn’t help because he’s so far behind in the play, and because any close out could lead to an easy layup for Harden against the slow-footed center.
What it does in that instance is hang Curry out to dry and leave Harden with a wide-open look at the top of the key. This isn’t an isolated incident. Here is a look at Bogut doing the same thing during the teams’ meeting on Feb. 12.
Bogut is a smart player, so this is a conscious decision. He would rather have Harden take a jumper—even a wide-open one—than take it to the rim. That’s a good decision for the most part. The problem is that the Warriors’ big men don’t just abandon their guards against elite slashers—as the video evidence of David Lee doing his best “olè” here against Will Bynum of the Detroit Pistons:
Anyone else notice how Lee points to Curry like “yeah, you got this?” I love watching David Lee play defense. So does James Harden.
X-Factor: Klay Thompson
Though their ozone layer defense is the biggest factor in Golden State’s descent to mediocrity, perhaps the worst-kept secret in the league is how dependent it is on Thompson to perform. The second-year guard has shown flashes of future brilliance this season, but his shooting remains an inconsistent enigma that comes and departs on its own schedule.
Case in point: Thompson is scoring 18.1 points per game while shooting a shade under 45 percent (42.9 percent from three-point land) in Warriors victories. The team is 15-7 when he scores 20 or more points and 14-5 when he makes more than half of his shots.
Of course, it’s easy to point out that players tend to play better when their team is winning. That’s like saying Russia is cold in the winter. But what’s notable is how far Thompson has veered the other way in losses. Thompson is averaging only 14.4 points on 38.1 percent shooting (33.7 percent from beyond the arc) in Warriors losses.
Essentially, Thompson is 2006-07 Leandro Barbosa when his team is winning and Rudy Fernandez in Warriors losses—and not the fun Olympics version, either. It’s a stark contrast that is indicative of Golden State’s inconsistencies as a whole and Thompson’s still-embryonic growth as a player. This is also what makes Warriors fans lose sleep at night over knowing they could have had Harden for Thompson and turned the trade down, per Grantland’s Bill Simmons.
But, alas, Thompson is still in Golden State and he’s actually performed well against the Rockets despite his team’s losses—save for the teams’ first matchup where Mark Jackson sat his starters early. Thompson, as one might expect, scores well above league-average as a spot up shooter and takes over a quarter of his possessions in that play set, per Synergy Sports. Houston, again, as expected, ranks as a bottom-10 team in points per possession allowed to spot up shooters—thanks mostly to the team’s inability to rotate.
Despite all of the poor shooting in the two sides’ last matchup, Thompson was one of the few bright spots. He scored 22 points, knocked down four of his six shots from distance and was brilliant early on before fading down the stretch.
Of course, Golden State lost—so it doesn’t matter in the end. But the season-long sample size says the Warriors are an elite team when Thompson performs, and his skill-set matches up well against Houston. It’s no guarantee, but be sure to watch Thompson’s shot early—it could be the difference in the game.
Projected Starting Lineups
PG: Stephen Curry
SG: Klay Thompson
SF: Harrison Barnes
PF: David Lee
C: Andrew Bogut
PG: Jeremy Lin
SG: James Harden
SF: Chandler Parsons
PF: Donatas Motiejunas
C: Omer Asik
Who will win?
The only prediction that we can just about guarantee is that this won’t repeat the teams’ last meeting. There will be no 3-of-17 performance from Harden, nor will Golden State shoot just 37.9 percent from the field. These are two fantastic offensive teams that score at a high level—and two terrible defensive teams that allow points at an alarming rate. There will be points on Sunday and plenty of them.
As for who will score more points, that’s where it’s hard to go against recent history. The Rockets have defeated the Warriors twice at home this season, which represents 20 percent of Golden State’s losses at Oracle Arena. With Houston being among the better home teams in the league, look for them to pull away late for a win that will satiate the offense-lover in your life.
Final Score Prediction: Rockets 117, Warriors 110