The fourth-seeded Houston Rockets won their five-game first-round series with the Utah Jazz on Wednesday, and the top-seeded Golden State Warriors followed on Friday in six games against the Los Angeles Clippers. Their Western Conference semifinals series is a rematch of last year’s seven-game conference finals matchup.
How they got here
Golden State: The two-time defending champions entered this season as overwhelming favorites to win for a third straight time, especially after adding All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins for the midlevel exception. The regular season has become meaningless for a team that has tasted so much playoff success, and they played like it, losing more games than anyone should expect from a team that features two former MVPs, two other top-20 players and two more former All-Stars.
Boredom on the court begot drama off of it, as Kevin Durant and Draymond Green engaged in an early season spat that saw the latter call the former “a b----” in front of the entire team. Green ripped Durant for lording his free agency over their pursuit of NBA history, and while they patched things up publicly, the wound is still fresh.
Even still, Golden State was talented enough to clinch the West’s No. 1 seed with room to spare, and the rest of the conference spent the regular season’s final few games plotting ways to avoid them in the first two playoff rounds. Without maximum effort, the Warriors posted the NBA’s best offensive rating (114.9 points per 100 possessions) and the West’s best net rating (plus-6.4 points per 100).
As Green said, “If we compete, can’t nobody beat us, and even sometimes when we don’t compete, people still can’t beat us.” The Warriors have repeated some variation of the mantra, “Nobody can beat us but ourselves,” and they have done well to give themselves a run for their money. It’s been a strange season, to be sure.
The Warriors didn’t even take the first round of the playoffs seriously. It took a historic 31-point comeback by the Clippers in Game 2 of their first-round series to wake up the defending champs and (more specifically) Durant, and even that didn’t fully do the trick, as L.A. stole Game 5 in Oracle Arena, too. Try as the Clips may, they stood no chance against a fully engaged Golden State team — as was clearly evident in Game 6, where the Warriors cruised to a 19-point win in Los Angeles behind a 50-point performance from Durant.
We should get the answer to whether or not that is true for the rest of the league in this next round.
Houston: The Rockets were still staggering from last year’s conference finals loss to the Warriors at the start of this season. Personnel moves didn’t help the hangover. The retirement of respected assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik, combined with the front-office decisions to replace Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute with Carmelo Anthony and James Ennis, transformed what was a top-five defense into a five-alarm trash fire, and the result was an 11-14 start to the regular season.
Then, James Harden put on his superhero costume. The reigning MVP submitted one of the greatest offensive seasons in league history, including a legendary January, and not even injuries to Chris Paul, Clint Capela and Eric Gordon could keep the Rockets from regaining their foothold among the NBA’s elite. Harden averaged 36.1 points, 7.5 assists, 6.6 rebounds and two steals in 36.8 minutes per game, putting Houston on his shoulders until everyone got healthy. Even Bzdelik returned to help the Rockets climb back above league average defensively since Christmas.
Shopping on the buyout market for some of the grit they lost last summer, Houston added Danuel House, Austin Rivers and Kenneth Faried at various points during the season, and they now fill the three bench spots in an eight-man playoff rotation.
By regular season’s end, the Rockets reestablished themselves as the West’s best threat to the Warriors, and their first-round series with a dangerous Jazz quintet proved no different. Houston throttled Utah in Games 1 and 2, and the rest of the Rockets finally proved capable of saving Harden when he struggled in Game 3. The recipe for success that worked so well for Houston last season — Harden’s greatness, Paul spelling him for stretches, Capela rolling to the rim for both of them, shooters everywhere else, and sound defense on the other end — is cooking again.
Head to head
After pushing the Warriors to the brink in the conference finals last season, the Rockets didn’t let up, joining last year’s Jazz as the only other team to defeat the Warriors three times during the regular season since Steve Kerr took the bench in 2015. Houston nearly made it a clean sweep, losing the fourth and final meeting by two points.
Three of the four meetings came down to the final possession, which bodes well for another sensational series. Since the start of last season, the Rockets are now 7-4 against the Warriors when Paul plays alongside Harden, famously losing the final two games of last year’s playoff series after Paul suffered another hamstring injury.
Every meeting between the two teams this season was almost an anomaly. The Warriors were without Curry when the Rockets beat them by 21 points in mid-November. Harden drained game-tying and -winning 3-pointers in regulation and overtime to beat Golden State without Paul in early January. Then, the Rockets narrowly beat the full Warriors contingent again without Harden in late February. And Golden State finally beat Houston by two without Durant in mid-March.
The one constant is the competitiveness. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has long conceded that his roster was built with a focus on matching the Warriors’ firepower. His roster now makes more 3-pointers per game than a Golden State team with three of the greatest shooters in history, and Houston’s switch-heavy defense is designed to widen that gap, forcing the Warriors off the 3-point line. In each of their last 10 meetings, the team to sink more 3-pointers has won the game.
Likely starting lineups
Cousins, who had a monster game in Golden State’s sole win against Houston during the regular season, suffered a torn left quad four minutes into Game 2 against the Clippers. Since then, the Warriors have started Andrew Bogut at center. The 34-year-old former No. 1 overall pick rejoined the Warriors after spending the past year in Australia’s National Basketball League. It seems unlikely that Bogut will start opposite the more athletic Capela, and he may not even play in this series.
The Warriors started Kevon Looney for the first four games of last year’s conference finals, until Andre Iguodala’s health was restored and Golden State started its death lineup in Games 5-7, with Green manning the center position. The Warriors tried both starting big man options against the Rockets again — Looney and Green — before Cousins joined the team in mid-January, so it will be interesting to see how they begin this series and whether they adjust if their first choice results in defeat.
The death lineup (Curry, Durant, Green, Iguodala, Klay Thompson) outscored the Rockets by 14 points in just 14 minutes this season after outscoring them by only three points over 56 minutes in last year’s conference finals. Meanwhile, that group with Looney instead of Iguodala outscored the Rockets by 31 over 153 minutes in last year’s series, then played eight minutes of one game against them this season.
Houston’s starters are a little more predictable. They moved Gordon into the opening lineup for good in mid-January. He joins Harden, Paul, Capela and P.J. Tucker on the Rockets’ most used five-man unit, and that group started all five games against the Jazz. They outscored opponents by 7.5 points per 100 possessions in 420 minutes together during the regular season, and then increased that margin to 20 per 100 possessions over 87 minutes in the series against Utah.
During the regular season, Houston’s starting five was outscored by three points in 18 minutes over two games against the Warriors. The Rockets have statistically been better with House playing in place of Paul both throughout the regular season and against the Warriors this season, but don’t expect that to sway coach Mike D’Antoni’s opinion that playing Harden and Paul together is their best option.
The Harden-Paul-Gordon-Tucker-Capela lineup played only 10 minutes together in last year’s conference finals, outscoring the Warriors by five points, so as familiar as these two teams are with each other, they are still tinkering with different matchups.
Matchups to watch
Harden vs. Curry: The two superstars rarely defend each other. Both teams prefer to defend the other team’s dynamic guard with the long arms of Thompson and Iguodala or Rivers and Gordon. What we mean by a matchup here is simply the opportunity to watch two of the greatest offensive players in NBA history do their thing in a single series. It was hard to imagine anyone doing anything as impressive as Curry’s unanimous MVP campaign, in which he scored 30.1 points and made 402 3-pointers on 50.4/45.4/90.8 shooting splits, but Harden’s 36.1 points per game this season — more than any other guard but Michael Jordan — are up there.
Durant vs. hero ball: As the Warriors fell behind the Rockets 3-2 in last year’s conference finals, Durant drew heavy criticism for playing too much iso ball, since the foundation of Golden State’s dynasty was built on ball movement. It is tempting, since Houston really has no answer for Golden State’s second MVP, as if anyone does. In last year’s playoffs, however, Durant relied on isolation possessions twice as often as he did during the regular season, and while he scored 1.01 points per possession, the Rockets will take that when the Warriors otherwise scored 1.13 points per possession over the course of the entire season. Durant is back to using around four possessions per game in isolation this season, but will that trend continue when he’s watching his former teammate Harden score in iso after iso?
Capela vs. Green: Few bigs score more often in the pick and roll than Capela, and few defend roll men better than Green. The 2017 Defensive Player of the Year was also once a key to Golden State’s five-out offense, as he could both score and create for others from the perimeter. That would be key to keeping Capela from protecting the rim, but Green is less dangerous from distance than he ever was. He has looked to have a little more bounce in his step defensively in these playoffs, but Capela will sag off of Green until he can make the Rockets pay on the other end.
How Golden State can win
Curry duels with Harden, Durant dominates within the flow of the offense, and as the attention turns to those two, Thompson goes off from 3-point range. The concern for Golden State is a bench that is as shallow as it’s ever been during this run. In Game 5 against the Clippers, Durant, Curry and Thompson combined for 91 points, and the Warriors still managed to lose. If they can get any offense from Green or the reserves, then they’re right — nobody is beating them at their best.
How Houston can win
Harden is the most dominant offensive player in the world, Paul stays healthy, the Rockets make their threes, and Houston’s wings hold their own defensively, chasing Golden State’s shooters off the line and hoping Capela can keep them from the rim. Throw the first punch, create some doubt in Golden State’s fragile locker room, and hope to God the 1-2 punch of Curry and Durant aren’t throwing haymakers. It’s a tall order, especially with the Warriors holding home-court advantage, but Houston had them on the ropes in a Game 6 before Paul’s injury helped them off the mat.
Prediction: Warriors in seven.
Eastern Conference semifinals previews: No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks vs. No. 4 Boston Celtics • No. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 3 Philadelphia 76ers
Western Conference semifinals previews: No. 1 Golden State Warriors vs. No. 4 Houston Rockets • No. 2 Denver Nuggets vs. No. 3 Portland Trail Blazers
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