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How They Got Here
• Golden State: After a season of near-constant highs, the Warriors finally experienced real adversity in the Western Conference Semifinals against the Memphis Grizzlies. After dispatching the Grizzlies with ease in Game 1, Golden State faltered in Game 2 thanks to the reintroduction of the injured Mike Conley and a classic grit-and-grind performance in which Memphis made the best team of the regular season look very uncomfortable. Things got even worse in Game 3, and for a time it looked as if the Warriors did not have the mettle to make the necessary adjustments and persevere through challenges to exploit is apparent advantages.
Game 4 answered any of those doubts. Head coach Steve Kerr and his staff changed up the defensive scheme to nullify Tony Allen, at that point arguably the MVP of the series, and returned to the elite pick-your-poison ball movement that helped them steamroll the rest of the league throughout the past six months. Their three closing wins established the Warriors as even more fearsome than they appeared at the series' outset. The defense exposed the Grizzlies' one-dimensionality, the offense found its level, and Stephen Curry looked every bit an MVP. They may face more challenges this spring, but it is no longer easy to argue that they won't be ready for them.
• Houston: Congratulations to the Rockets, who just pulled off one of the more baffling series wins in recent NBA history. The focus has been and will continue to be on their stunning 19-point comeback towards the end of Game 6 at Staples Center and subsequent comfortable win in Game 7 at home, but the context makes those victories even more shocking. Houston looked almost indifferent to the action more the majority of the first five games, including during a horrendous Game 1 in which the Clippers won on the road despite lacking Chris Paul and just having come off a draining seven-game series with the San Antonio Spurs. It was almost as if Kevin McHale and Co. engaged in an especially annoying version of rope-a-dope in which they lulled the Clippers into a sense of complacency before ramping up their own energy levels to pull out a dramatic victory. At the same time, the Rockets really did reach impressive heights in the series, to the point where they must be taken seriously.
The operative question is which version of the Rockets is the real one — or at least which will show up vs. the Warriors. It's possible to read Games 6 and 7 as a breakthrough in which they figured it out, and it would make sense to expect their best given the gravity of the Western Conference Finals. But it also wouldn't be shocking if Houston lacks interest for stretches of the series in similarly confounding ways. If it happens once, it can happen again.
Head to Head
The season series was not pretty for the Rockets. The Warriors won all four matchups by an average of 15.25 points with margins ranging from 11 to 25, a relatively small sample that still suggests dominance. The first matchup on November 5 was arguably so early as to be meaningless, with the Rockets missing several key players and shooting just 34.9 percent (and 10-of-42 on threes) to fall 98-87 thanks mostly to 34 points on 13-of-19 shooting by Curry. The second on December 10 was a fairly ugly game without both Dwight Howard and Andrew Bogut in which the Warriors pulled away late to win 108-97 on the strength of balanced scoring and excellent late defense. Neither of these games really saw either team at its best, even if Curry and Harden both put forth one special performance apiece.
The third game stands out as the biggest Warriors win and the most dramatic from the perspective of narrative. Harden said before the contest that Golden State wasn't "even that good," which looked like a pretty silly comment after the Warriors rode a 38-17 third quarter to a 131-106 win. Draymond Green and Curry poked fun at Harden's comment after the blowout, and the whole episode seemed to confirm that the Warriors had a decided advantage over the Rockets. That same situation played out in the fourth and final matchup on January 21, when the Warriors coasted to a 13-point win made to look closer by the Rockets' play in garbage time.
The Rockets can take solace in knowing that Howard only played in the final two matchups, when he wasn't even at full health, and that Josh Smith hadn't really been integrated into his current role when he played in those same games. At the same time, both Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas were available then and will miss this series now, so it's not as if the Rockets look like a wholly different squad. The teams' approaches aren't likely to change substantially in this series, and the preexisting dynamic certainly seems to benefit Golden State.
Likely Starting Lineups
The Warriors are understandably not going to change up much. Stephen Curry is the point guard and foundation of the entire offense, a player whose peerless shooting ability and range force defenses to follow everywhere at all times. Fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson escaped the suffocating defense of Tony Allen to finish the Memphis series on a high note with a few quality offensive peformances and his own excellent tracking of point guard Mike Conley. He figures to get the primary assignment on James Harden in this series, although Kerr and his staff are likely to vary their looks. Harrison Barnes plays the other wing but has shown the ability to be used in many roles, from a post defender to spot-up shooter to one-on-one scorer in specific matchup advantages. Power forward Draymond Green doesn't figure to be quite the x-factor he was in the Grizzlies series given that the Rockets also play tweener forwards at the four spot, but he remains a very effective player at both ends and with all sorts of potential impacts. Andrew Bogut is the primary interior defender on a team that defends the rim extremely well and a beast of a screener, even if his impact doesn't always show up in the individual box score stats.
The bench rotation could see some changes depending on the availability of big man Marreese Speights, who missed the last few games of the Memphis series due to a strained calf. Speights has already been ruled out for Game 1 will be reevaluated in a few days, but David Lee did a solid job replacing him even if his All-Star appearance two years ago seems like ancient history. Kerr cut the rotation to just Lee and versatile perimeter talents Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala for the tail end of the Grizzlies series, but it's possible that we will also see minutes from microwave Leandro Barbosa and center Festus Ezeli, who would see more time if Golden State takes to fouling Dwight Howard on purpose.
The bulk of James Harden's MVP candidacy depended on the argument that he is the Rockets' entire offense, so it shouldn't come as a surprise to learn that he's pretty important to their whole operation. His ability to shoot, finish, and get to the line sets up opportunities for every other player on the floor. Dwight Howard is the other superstar, which is not some kind of holdover designation from his time as an annual Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Howard was a terror defensively vs. the Clippers and the most consistent Rocket of the series — it's time to start thinking of him as an elite interior force again now that he's relatively healthy.
From there, everything gets a lot more complicated for Houston. The offense is geared around three-pointers, to the point where fellow starters Trevor Ariza and Jason Terry sometimes appear to have been told that mid-range and the paint are hot lava. Josh Smith replaced Terrence Jones in the starting lineup for Game 5 and seems likely to stay there moving forward. He is an eternally frustrating player, but his defensive abilities and occasional offensive outbursts turned the last series and could once again.
The bench is very important, primarily because wing Corey Brewer often serves as one of the team's key scorers. Backup point guard Pablo Prigioni was tremendous vs. L.A. as an occasional shooter and pesky defender. Jones has looked good since moving to the bench, and the very athletic Clint Capela plays as Howard's primary backup.
• JET on Curry: Against the odds, 37-year-old Jason Terry did an excellent job defending Chris Paul in the Rockets' series-closing three wins. Curry presents a more difficult challenge, both because he's not nursing a hamstring injury and because he lives to punish slower defenders while running around in the halfcourt. Houston is likely to try several defenders on Curry, including Ariza, but if Terry can't stop him from having several 30-point nights then it's likely to be a short series. The tenacious Patrick Beverley will be missed.
• Free Throws: As you probably know by now, Harden depends on free throws for many of his points, so the team's total number of attempts is typically a good indicator for the performance of the offense. Harden scored 30 points twice vs. the Warriors this season, but he only took 10 free throws in one of their games (the fourth one). It's hard to imagine Houston winning if he doesn't get to the stripe steadily.
Yet there's another important factor here, which is that the Rockets are often at their best when the flow of the game is broken up. Free throws are often the best way to reach that goal, and it wouldn't be shocking to see McHale opt to intentionally foul Bogut on several occasions just to change the game a bit. Kerr is unlikely to do the same to Howard for this very reason.
• Bench vs. Bench: The Warriors have not really had to rely on their bench yet this postseason, but improved shooting from Iguodala in their final three wins vs. Memphis was an underrated reason for that series' turnaround. On the other side, the play of the Rockets reserves has been essential, particularly given that Brewer turned into a superstar during the thrilling comeback in Game 6. For as good as Harden is, Houston is lacking in scoring options right now and need consistent options against a team with as many shooters as Golden State. Poor showings from Brewer, Jones, and others would spell doom.
How Golden State Could Win
The season series doesn't turn out to be meaningless. Bogut manages to draw Howard away from the hoop in the pick-and-roll. The defense turns Harden into a passer. Curry torches Terry. Kerr makes adjustments again, should he even need to. Josh Smith doesn't make three three-pointers in a quarter.
How Houston Could Win
Harden dominates. Howard does the same. Ariza shoots 40 percent or better from deep and locks up a number of players. Terry does a reasonable job on Curry. Brewer scores 15 points three or four times. McHale makes adjustments, which he'll probably need to. Josh Smith makes three three-pointers in a quarter.
Totally Subjective Entertainment Value Ranking: 7 out of 10. With all due respect to the people of Houston, it is hard to escape the fact that the Rockets do not play especially pretty basketball. It works, and they're very good, but their ideal form of the game often takes on the characteristics of a high-pressure Sudoku puzzle. It's impressive that they can do what they do, but that doesn't mean it's a joy to witness. The Warriors are almost always fun, if only because a team has to play very well to beat them. In this case, though, we'll probably either see comfortable Golden State wins or a few three-hour wars of attrition.
So this series will be as watchable as it is competitive. In that case, it's hard to escape this season's results. The Warriors' four wins were more than that — they were impressive displays of dominance by a team that appeared to have answers for everything the Rockets threw at them and some other things they didn't. To put it another way, there's a reason that all three of the key matchups mentioned above depend on the Rockets stepping up their games rather than the other way around. The Warriors just look like the better team.
Prediction: Warriors in five.
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