The Houston Rockets didn't beat the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals, but they came awfully close. If it weren't for a highly improbable 27 consecutive missed three-point shots and a Chris Paul injury, they might have even won it.
To put things into perspective, the Warriors' postseason record against the rest of the NBA since Kevin Durant joined the team is 24-3. It's 4-3 against the Rockets. Certainly, there are some things the Rockets did right. But is there anything the Cleveland Cavaliers can duplicate from that?
Lots and Lots of Iso
The Rockets ran a lot of isolation plays in the conference finals. We expected that because it's the way they played all season.
The Warriors also ran a lot of iso. That was unexpected because it's the antithesis of the way they played all season.
As Dirk Gently would say, "Everything is connected."
When James Harden and Paul were taking turns running isolation plays, it slowed down the game, and that had the effect of making it harder for the Warriors to get out and run. The Rockets were able to get back. That, plus extending their defense, forced Golden State into more of an isolation game than it was accustomed to.
For example, watch above as the Rockets spread out the Warriors. Paul dribbles for a bit and then drives the lane and scores. But notice how far back all the Warriors are when the shot goes in, the fact that no one on Golden State is hustling to get up the court and the complacency in inbounding the ball. All of that goes against what typical Warriors basketball looks like.
No one is going to beat the Warriors playing the Warriors' game. But the Rockets were able to take three games by forcing the Warriors to play Houston's game. While the Cavs aren't as adept with isolation plays as the Rockets, they do have LeBron James.
Any strategy that involves lots and lots of LeBron is a good one, and James has averaged 9.7 points on 1.04 points per possession in isolation during the postseason. A steady pounding from the Chosen One isn't going to be enough to win the series by itself, but it will make it possible.
With Andre Iguodala out for at least Game 1, that's all the more reason for James to pound the ball, as Iggy is the defender best equipped to slow him down.
And the Cavs aren't likely to go on an improbable streak of 27 missed threes, either. And there should be plenty of them open if LBJ is driving and kicking.
Switch and Swarm
Houston's defense, for all the doubts it received in spite of the improvement it showed all season, was stellar for most of the series.
In the games they won, the Rockets held the Warriors to a 99.7 offensive rating. They held the Warriors to two of their three lowest playoff point totals in the Kevin Durant era, and four of the lowest eight, with the three wins included in those four games, according to Basketball Reference. Defensively, the Rockets played as well as, if not better than, could have been expected.
A lot of that had to do with what I call their "switch and swarm" defense.
Defense is often said to be a matter of effort, but team defense requires effort and concentration. The Rockets applied both beautifully—particularly in games they won.
The first defender would force the ball-handler up well above the arc with the other four positioning themselves to play the passing lanes. If the ball-handler got by, the Rockets would switch. When he got inside, they'd collapse a second or even third defender on the ball with the others still playing the passing lanes.
By doing that, they forced a lot of mid-range shots and the aforementioned iso plays. It's significant to understand this. The Dubs didn't just decide to play differently; the Rockets defense forced them to.
The problem is, the Rockets have better defenders than the Cavs. PJ Tucker was phenomenal throughout the series and did a brilliant Draymond Green impression for much of it. Mo Dakhil of The Jump Ball illustrated how the Rockets pulled it off:
What also aids that strategy is that the Warriors often play with one or two non-shooters on the court. And truthfully, Green hasn't exactly been setting the world on fire during the postseason, shooting 27.7 percent from deep. All of that makes the "swarm" part of the switch-and-swarm a lot more viable.
The Cavs don't have a defender who can do all that, but Jeff Green might be able to do some of it. They also have a somewhat weird advantage. Beyond James and Kevin Love, they aren't "deep," but they are "even." The talent gap from their third-best player to their 10th- or 11th-best player is small.
So why not play everyone?
The Rockets ultimately failed because of fatigue, as coach Mike D'Antoni ran an overly thin rotation. The Cavs can avoid that by throwing out all the bodies. Sure, you never know what you're going to get when that happens, but you can get energy—and that might be the most important ingredient.
Getting everyone to consistently make the right play is another issue, but with all the extra time between games, they can hammer that out during practice.
Pound the Offensive Glass
Lastly, the Rockets did a wonderful job of selectively crashing the offensive glass, particularly with Clint Capela.
The impact of that is harder to measure statistically because the Rockets didn't take advantage of the second-chance opportunities they got. In their wins, though, they notched 11.3 second-chance points compared to 9.8 in losses.
The Cavs, who have Tristan Thompson, could do better in that regard.
Thompson has had an up-and-down postseason, but when he's "up" the Cavs tend to win—and they get a lot more offensive boards. Their offensive rebound percentage is 18.5 when Thompson sits and 24.0 when he's playing.
And as we've seen before in the Finals, he can let loose against the Warriors.
The other benefit is it plays into the rest of the strategy of mucking up Golden State's rhythm. If the Cavs are piling up the second-chance points, the Warriors are going to hesitate before leaking out in transition for the easy buckets they normally get.
That can give Cleveland the extra fractions of a second it needs to get its transition defense going and slow Golden State's offense down.
The danger here is it's a delicate balance. If the Cavs press too hard on the offensive glass, they're going to get filleted by fast breaks when they don't get the boards. The key will be having one guy—such as Thompson or Larry Nance Jr.—focus on rebounding while the rest make sure they spy out the outlet pass and keep the Warriors from running.
None of this is easy. If it were, the Warriors wouldn't be looking to claim their third title in four years; they wouldn't be one of the greatest teams ever assembled.
But there is a way to beat them, and the Rockets showed the way. If Cleveland can duplicate the things Houston did that worked while adding the best player in the world to the formula, it has a chance.
Stats via NBA.com unless otherwise noted.