Rockets vs. Warriors: Analysis and Predictions for Western Conference Finals
After six months of regular-season competition and two highly competitive playoff series, the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets are all that remain of a historically brutal Western Conference.
Now, they'll do battle for a berth in the NBA Finals.
Houston reached this juncture improbably. It became just the ninth team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 deficit to claim a seven-game series. Its 19-point comeback against a stunned Los Angeles Clippers team in Game 6 of the conference semifinals will likely stand as the most shocking spectacle of these playoffs.
The Warriors faced their own challenges early in their series against the Memphis Grizzlies. But after falling behind 2-1, Golden State solved Memphis. Ratcheting up the defense and leaning on the MVP marksmanship of Stephen Curry, the Warriors ran off three straight convincing wins to seal the series in six games.
This series won't just pit the teams with the two best records in the West against one another; it'll also shine a spotlight on the top two finishers in this year's MVP balloting.
Top seeds and top talents are on a collision course as the Dubs and Rockets get set for Game 1 on Tuesday night.
Nov. 11: Warriors 98, Rockets 87
Dec. 10: Warriors 105, Rockets 93
Jan. 17: Warriors 131, Rockets 106
Jan. 21: Warriors 126, Rockets 113
You'll note the Warriors had little trouble with the Rockets this season, notching four double-digit wins.
If you're looking for some Houston hope, that Nov. 11 game featured three starters (Tarik Black, Kostas Papanikolaou and Isaiah Canaan) who won't see time in this series. Black and Canaan aren't even on the team anymore. Dwight Howard missed that contest with the flu, Terrence Jones sat out with nerve issues in his leg and Josh Smith wasn't on the roster yet.
Howard didn't play on Dec. 10 either.
He did, however, participate in the Warriors' 131-106 demolition on Jan. 17. And so did starters Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas, neither of whom will suit up in the West Finals. Everybody was healthy on both sides less than a week later, when the Dubs smashed the Rockets again, 126-113.
To be frank, the regular season doesn't offer much hope for Houston. The Warriors' net rating of plus-13.8 points per 100 possessions against the Rockets was actually higher than the league-leading plus-11.4 they posted against the NBA at large.
Warriors head coach Steve Kerr has been careful not to ascribe too much value to the Warriors' regular-season success against Houston.
He told Jeff Faraudo of the San Jose Mercury News: "It's different in the playoffs. We saw Memphis three times, saw New Orleans four times but they looked different in the playoffs," Kerr said. "Every series presents a different challenge, but when you get to the conference finals, whoever you're playing is playing with a lot of confidence, playing well."
Fair. But the regular-season data means something. And it's hard to interpret it in a way that favors the Rockets.
All Western Conference Finals games will start at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Game 1: Houston at Golden State, Tuesday, May 19
Game 2: Houston at Golden State, Thursday, May 21
Game 3: Golden State at Houston, Saturday, May 23
Game 4: Golden State at Houston, Monday, May 25
Game 5*: Houston at Golden State, Wednesday, May 27
Game 6*: Golden State at Houston, Friday, May 29
Game 7*: Houston at Golden State, Sunday, May 31
The hill Houston must climb gets steeper, thanks to the Warriors' home-court advantage.
Golden State's league-high 67 regular-season wins means it'll get two home contests to kick things off and the assurance that a potential Game 7 will take place in Oakland, where it was an NBA-best 39-2.
The Rockets tied the Clippers for the league's second-most road wins with 26, which bodes well. Except that the Warriors (28 victories) also had more success away from home.
One potential issue for Houston: It has been abysmal defensively on the road in these playoffs, allowing a whopping 117.9 points per 100 possessions and getting outscored overall by 11 points per 100 possessions. That's bad, especially against a Warriors team that has actually shot better in opposing gyms (56.8 percent true shooting on the road vs. 55.2 percent at home) than its own in the postseason.
Our search for positive Rockets' statistics continues.
Key Postseason Stats
Offensive Rating: 107.4 (2)
Defensive Rating: 98.8 (4)
Net Rating: 8.6 (2)
Small samples against specific matchups make for tricky statistical analysis. The Warriors, for example, have played at the third-slowest pace of any playoff team after leading the league in the category during the regular season. Thanks a heap, plodding Memphis Grizzlies.
We shouldn't expect a slow-it-down game from either team, and in fact, the Warriors will be particularly anxious to get out and run after being stifled by Memphis' grind-it-out game.
Good defensive game-planning by the New Orleans Pelicans and extreme physicality from the Grizzlies kept the Warriors' offense from exploding. Turnovers have been an issue as well; Golden State has coughed up the rock 16 times per 100 possessions, which is the worst mark of any playoff team.
Offensive Rating: 105.9 (5)
Defensive Rating: 106.8 (12)
Net Rating: -0.9 (8)
Houston's defense has been alarmingly shaky throughout the postseason, but the same explanations for the Warriors' numbers apply here as well.
The Rockets had to tangle with the Dallas Mavericks and Clippers, who ranked fifth and first, respectively, in offensive efficiency during the regular season. That would be cause for optimism if we hadn't seen Houston's focus on transition defense come and go so often against Los Angeles.
Golden State has scored a playoff-best 21.8 percent of its points on the break in these playoffs, and if Houston doesn't show better attention to detail in scattered situations, that number could rise.
Warriors' X-Factor: Klay Thompson
Klay Thompson, after playing brilliant defense on Mike Conley in the conference semifinals, will draw the unenviable task of being Harden's primary defender in the next round.
Though the Rockets showed a surprising knack for scoring without Harden on the floor against Los Angeles (particularly in that 19-point comeback in Game 6 with Harden parked on the pine), I think we all recognize that Houston will need The Beard's scoring to compete against Golden State.
That makes Thompson hugely important.
The Warriors have no shortage of rangy wings to toss at Harden; Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, Shaun Livingston and Draymond Green will all spend time hassling him. But Thompson will be the primary defender, and if he can slow Harden down without getting himself into foul trouble, the Warriors will have a major edge.
Harden averaged 25.3 points per game against the Warriors during the season, but he shot just 40.5 percent from the field and 24.1 percent from three—indicators that Thompson made him work for his numbers.
Thompson's series-swinging importance doesn't stop there, though.
We should expect the Rockets to slot Trevor Ariza on Stephen Curry because neither Jason Terry nor Harden has any shot to stay with the league's deadliest shooter. Those two aren't equipped to handle the MVP, and using up Harden's energy chasing Curry around endless screens would be a massive mistake.
That means Thompson is likely to see a favorable matchup on the other end.
If Houston uses the undersized Terry, Thompson, 6'7" and gifted with a perfect high release, will get uncontested shots whenever he wants them. He could punish Terry in the post and fire over him from the perimeter—covered or not.
And while Harden has improved defensively, his frequent bouts of inattention could spell death against a shooter as quick and opportunistic as Thompson.
Staying with Harden on defense is a tough task, so Thompson may lack the legs to be aggressive offensively if the series drags on very long. In four meetings with Houston this year, he averaged 21.5 points per game but shot just 25.9 percent from long range.
If Thompson can stay fresh enough to be dangerous on offense, he could destroy the Rockets.
Rockets' X-Factor: Trevor Ariza
Apologies if we've spoiled this by already mentioning Ariza as the man likely to draw the Curry assignment, but it's important enough to warrant an early nod and a subsequent deep dive.
Early in the conference semifinals, Ariza spent time guarding Chris Paul, and he wound up on Blake Griffin for long stretches as the series progressed. That tells us Rockets coach Kevin McHale believes his small forward is best equipped to guard the opposition's biggest threat, almost regardless of position.
Harden noticed and was appreciative, per Jared Wade of Fansided.com: "When we lost Chandler [Parsons], first guy I wanted was Trevor...He's a winner, and that's what I like around me: Winners."
Keeping Curry under control is not a one-man job. The Grizzlies almost always trapped or strung Curry out on the perimeter with a second defender, so Ariza won't be on his own. But he will be primarily responsible when Curry is running all over the place off the ball and threatening to pull up from 28 feet in transition.
The truth is that Ariza hasn't been a truly elite wing-stopper for a few years. He guarded Paul and Griffin mostly because the Rockets lacked better options, not necessarily because he's an objectively great defender.
Still, Ariza's length will be an asset, and we know he can handle switches onto power forwards, so sticking him on Curry could take some punch away from Golden State's high 1-4 pick-and-roll. You know, the one it ran incessantly to punish the less-mobile Zach Randolph in the last round.
As was the case with Thompson and his own X-factor status, Ariza's importance isn't confined to defense.
He has to be a floor-spacing threat on the other end as well.
The Warriors aren't going to honor Josh Smith or Terrence Jones on the perimeter. The same goes for Corey Brewer. Harden and Terry are proven threats from deep, but we just got finished watching Golden State completely suffocate a Grizzlies team with a lack of shooting depth.
If Ariza can't force the Dubs to cover him from long range, the Rockets may not have enough outside options to keep the Warriors from sagging into the lane. And if the paint is congested, lobs to Howard become harder, Harden's forays to the rim get messier and turnovers could spike.
There's nothing more dangerous than a Warriors team running out after steals.
If Curry gets loose, Houston will be in trouble. But if Ariza goes cold on the other end, it could be a disaster.
Obvious Adjustment Golden State Must Make: Stepping out of the Stone Age
You'd need a time machine to find another team like the Grizzlies squad the Warriors just vanquished.
Slow and unathletic, allergic to threes and madly in love with post-ups, Memphis played all year and all series like it was stuck in the 1980s. Golden State adjusted its schemes to punish the Grizzlies for their anachronistic style, ignoring nonthreatening perimeter shooters and crashing down hard on slow-developing plays on the block.
Now, the Warriors face a team whose offensive philosophy couldn't be more different.
The Rockets have devoted just 7.2 percent of their offensive possessions to post-up plays this postseason, less than half the frequency of the playoff-leading Grizzlies' 18.1 percent, per Synergy Sports. And while Memphis attempted only 14 threes per game, the Rockets have tried 28.5 treys per playoff contest.
They led the league with 32.7 long-distance tries per game this year.
Houston's long-range accuracy hasn't been overwhelming in these playoffs (34.5 percent) or during the regular season (34.8 percent). But the Warriors must adjust nonetheless, running shooters off the line and seeking opponents to box out in space once those shots go up.
Against Memphis, things were simpler: clog the middle, contest shots or force kick-outs and then wrestle for rebounding position with whichever bulky body was nearest.
We know Golden State had no trouble handling Houston during the year, and if anything, the Warriors play the Rockets' style better than they do. Remember, the Dubs shot a league-best 39.8 percent from deep on 27 attempts per game this year.
If it's a shootout the Rockets want, rest assured the Warriors will give it to them.
They'll just have to remember what modern NBA basketball looks like after a throwback series against the Grizz.
Obvious Adjustment Houston Must Make: Demand Perfection
The Mavericks couldn't defend, and the Clippers, utterly exhausted, were done in by their lack of depth.
It's not fair to say the Rockets were lucky to reach the conference finals, even if their presence here depended on the highly improbable (and pretty darn fortunate) 19-point comeback to avoid elimination in Game 6 against the Clips.
Houston earned its Game 7 win against L.A., and it also did well to quickly dispatch the one-dimensional Mavs.
But the days of easy buckets are over. The consequence-free luxury of totally ignoring nonthreatening shooters (Hi, Matt Barnes, 1-of-8 from deep in Game 6 and scoreless in Game 7) is gone too.
The Warriors were the league's best defensive team this year, and they ranked second in offensive efficiency, just a hair behind the top-ranked Clippers. There will be no rest on either end.
Leaving Harrison Barnes alone in the corner, which is exactly what the Rockets did against the other Barnes in the conference semifinals, is a death sentence. The Dubs small forward hit 47 percent of his corner threes this year, including an absurd 58.5 percent on 53 attempts from the right corner.
Ignore Green above the break and he'll bury three triples in the first quarter, just like he did in Game 1 against Memphis.
Fall asleep in transition, and the league's best fast-break team will take all the dunks and threes you'll give them.
Lose contact with Curry or Thompson for a nanosecond and grab an umbrella because...SPLASH.
Don't count on capitalizing against a soft bench, either. Golden State has trimmed its rotation, and it now essentially consists of the league's most potent starting lineup, versatile dynamo Shaun Livingston and the former All-Star duo of Iguodala and David Lee.
This is a roundabout way of saying there is no such thing as an easily exploitable weakness on Golden State's roster. That can't be said of Houston's first two opponents.
To compete in this series, the Rockets can't just be better than they've been so far.
They have to be dialed in on both ends, alert at all times and constantly on the attack.
They have to be perfect.
The Rockets have a lot going for them: They're resilient, remarkably efficient in their shot selection, led by one of the toughest one-on-one scorers in the league and, and after roaring back to stun the Clippers, extremely confident.
But they've been outscored overall in these playoffs, and they simply cannot expect to cover Curry without making immense sacrifices elsewhere. If Patrick Beverley miraculously returns to health, maybe that changes, and maybe the Rockets have a fighting chance.
Just don't count on it.
Because at this point, picking the Warriors to win comfortably is the only logical route to take. They won 67 games this season, destroying the league by margins that marked them as historically dominant. And they were more dominant against the Rockets.
Houston was good at a few things: shooting the three, pushing the pace and defending the rim.
Golden State was better at all of them, and, it should be noted, they were excellent in a ton of areas where the Rockets struggled. For instance, Houston was fourth-worst in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio. Golden State was second-best.
Making the case for the Warriors to win comfortably comes down to looking at the broader data and concluding that the Rockets aren't the same class of team. Which isn't so surprising because throughout this season, nobody has been.
The head-to-head matchups favor Golden State, which has a seemingly endless supply of capable defenders to hurl at Harden. Meanwhile, the Rockets lack a single good option to corral Curry.
Style of play? Same story.
The Warriors are monsters in transition, and Houston likes to play that way, too, but it loses focus defensively.
Both teams have big men who can't make foul shots, but Golden State's scariest lineup doesn't even feature Andrew Bogut. When they go small with Green at center, chaos ensues and leads explode. Taking Howard off the floor makes the Rockets a disaster on defense.
Run down the obvious lists, peek into the dark statistical corners and scour the matchups for reasons to pick the Rockets all you want. There's just nothing there.
Out of respect for Houston's comeback against the Clippers, we'll give them a game.
Prediction: Warriors in five
Series MVP: Stephen Curry
Grant Hughes covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @gt_hughes.
All statistics courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise indicated.