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Rockets V. Warriors: A Western Conference Prize Fight

The Western Conference finals is a true prize fight.

Since Kevin Durant took his talents to Golden State, this is what we’ve been waiting for — the arrival of a true challenger to the Warriors. 

In light of Durant’s 2016 decision to leave Oklahoma City and join a record-breaking 73-9 team, it has felt like Golden State has monopolized the chance to contend for the NBA’s championship. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson — the game’s greatest shooters — along with the emotive and defensively suffocating Draymond Green had already established a powerhouse, and Durant’s decision made them one of the league’s most talented teams of all time. In hindsight, last year’s championship was decided the moment Durant signed on the dotted line. The megastar’s decision was his to make, and the NBA has always been built on juggernauts; however, one could argue that no modern-era superteam was this far ahead of its competition until now. 

Once Durant supercharged “the Dubs,” they’ve only lost a grand total of three playoff games. Last year’s Warriors finished with an identical offensive rating to the ‘86-‘87 “Showtime” Lakers at 115.6, the best of all time. Moreover, despite key injuries to various stars throughout this year, they finished with the league’s third-ranked offensive rating and nearly 60 wins at second place in their conference. They are a juggernaut in every since of the word. 

Sure, there was always the possibility of a massive upset, but as NBA fans, we yearned for a challenger who could test the Warriors without needing to play above their head or overcome daunting odds. Dynasties are great for every sports league, but only when the championship doesn’t feel like a foregone conclusion. 

This year’s Houston Rockets are providers of intrigue and suspense. They are a team built for this particular challenge and the product of general manager Daryl Morey’s admitted obsession. 

“It’s the only thing we think about,” Morey said last December to ESPN Radio. ”I think I’m not supposed to say that, but we’re basically obsessed with ‘How do we beat the Warriors?

Morey’s obsession might have paid off. He just might have the answer he’s been looking for. The Rockets’ emergence as the Warriors’ chief challenger has been the result of efficiency. They have become one of the NBA’s most dominant offenses of all time, with the combination of elite talent and the forward-thinking shot selection of “Moreyball.” 

Daryl Morey and head coach Mike D’Antoni are a perfect match, and since his days with Steve Nash’s Phoenix Suns, D’Antoni has revolutionized the use of the three-point shot. Like D’Antoni’s 2007 Suns, the Rockets led the league in three-pointers attempted and made this year. They shot a league-high 42 three-pointers per game this season; no other team shot more than 35. They also made 15 per game, nearly three more than the next team. 

Besides Chris Paul’s lethal mid-range game, most of the Rockets shoot a large majority of either three-point shots or layups to promote maximum efficiency with each possession. James Harden has taken 77% of his shots from either three feet and under or beyond the three-point line. Key Rockets roleplayers, including Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, and Gerald Green, have shot over 70% of their shots from deep — not because they are some elite marksmen by any stretch, but because the three-pointer is an incredibly efficient shot, and when its there, the Rockets pounce on it. 

The Rockets’ 50-point quarter against Minnesota showed what can happen when a team allows them to hit their apex. 

The offense lends itself to a high number of attempts, with very wide spacing that allows both Harden and Paul the real estate to create shots for themselves or teammates off the dribble. The isolation is the Rockets most utilized method of offensive attack besides the pick and roll, and they lead the NBA in iso play. This offense is no mystery; Paul and Harden just “ball,” and the rest of the Rockets play off of them. The Rockets’ offense is the easiest in the league to follow with the fewest passes, but they’re arguably the hardest to stop because of the superstar ability of their backcourt, the shotmaking ability of this roster, and the chemistry the guards have established, doing well to avoid stepping on each other’s toes. 

The Rockets’ isolation-heavy attack was the league’s #1 rated offense. They also ranked second in the league in points per game this season with 112, just one point behind Golden State’s more free-flowing, assist-heavy style. They’ve nearly equaled the offensive production of the league’s most talented team by simply maximizing the game’s most lethal shot. Isolation basketball can be extremely effective if you have the talent and do it efficiently.

Another key aspect of Golden State’s challenger is their massive improvement on defense. Paul is an NBA all-defensive point guard; Luc Mbah a Moute and Tucker are feisty, competitive wing defenders that provide “switchability” and toughness. However, the star of the Rockets’ defense is Clint Capela. Capela’s great athleticism allows the Rockets to switch him onto guards with confidence, and when he’s near the basket, he’s a tenacious interior defender, #2 in the regular season and #1 in the playoffs in blocks. 

The Rockets defensive overhaul allowed them to rank sixth in defensive rating and opponents’ points per game throughout the regular season; they rank #2 in the playoffs. They are a complete team with the offensive firepower to beat the Warriors and the defensive tenacity to build leads and establish momentum. 

The intangible factor for the Rockets will be desire. Paul and Harden’s  postseason low points have been well-documented, and this series is a chance at redemption for them. The disappearing act Harden displayed last season against San Antonio should be nowhere to be found in this series, and Paul seems determined to correct his playoff narrative at age 33. 

This year’s conference finals is shaping up to be a real series, something the Durant-laced Warriors aren’t accustomed to. This series also marks one of the few times that these Warriors will play a fully healthy team in the Western Conference playoffs.

But they’re the favorites for a reason, and they’re more than up for the challenge. The Rockets’ isolation play will be to their detriment if they aren’t sharp. Paul and Harden have played the entire season against teams with multiple players they could pick on, but the Warriors are a different animal. Golden State has outstanding perimeter defenders everywhere you turn, from proven stars like Klay Thompson and Durant to versatile vets like Andre Iguodala. In addition, they have an outstanding force in Green, whose intelligence and effort makes them special. 

Targeting Curry won’t work as well as it has in the past for teams; Curry’s not the quickest or strongest defensive guard, but his current defensive intelligence and active hands make him a better player than he used to be on that end of the court. And if they happen to find themselves matched up with a Warrior big like Kevon Looney or Javale McGee, the Warriors are outstanding at identifying potentially advantageous matchups for the offense and helping off of non-lethal offensive players for the opposing team. Paul and Harden will be hard-pressed to find a matchup that doesn’t present a decent challenge and they’ll need to be “in their bag” to score in isolation. 

Long story short: The Rockets will need to occasionally leave their comfort zone to win. Creating easy baskets off the bounce will be much harder in this series. They aren’t all of a sudden going to become the Spurs overnight, but they must be willing to throw a changeup at Golden State to score consistently throughout the series. 

Offensively, the Warriors death lineup should spend plenty of time on the court, and the Rockets can choose to either match it by moving P.J. Tucker to center or keep Clint Capela on the floor and exploit his size advantages on the boards. If the Rockets can control the glass, they can limit Golden State’s second-chance points and create their own opportunities to score some. On the flip side, if the Warriors can continue to gang rebound in the death lineup as effectively as they have in the past, it won’t matter. 

“They can start small and do all of the (defensive) switches, that’s what we do in practice every day,” D’Antoni told the Houston Chronicle. “Or they can start big and keep a guy back – we just came off Utah and that’s what they did.

The Warriors are an obvious tremendous challenge — they are a team full of superstar talents who play with zero acknowledgement of ego. They are also the polar opposites of Houston in the half court, often creating easy buckets with off-ball movement and Steve Kerr’s modernized triangle-influenced offensive sets. 

Curry and Thompson will often function as off-guards, with Green or Iguodala initiating the offense to free one of them for a distance shot that feels like a layup for the greatest shooters alive. Yet, despite having the greatest shooting talent ever, Golden State ranks just sixth in the league in three-pointers attempted and 10th in three-pointers made; they are the much more variable offense. And when it comes to “spurtability,” the Warriors are unmatched, capable of crazy offensive quarters of their own, especially when they’re disruptive and cause turnovers defensively. 

In the midst of that will be the gargantuan task of finding bodies to disrupt Durant. The Rockets have the horses on the perimeter defensively to at least make Durant work. Tucker and Ariza will get most of the work in initial matchups, but of course a collective effort is required. 

The ball will fly around, from one lethal talent to the next, and the Rockets will either be up for the defensive challenge or the Warriors will cement themselves as almost untouchable. 

This feels like a heavyweight fight between an established champion and audacious challenger. This series will be decided by execution, effort, and adjustments. Neither team’s skill level will overwhelm the other, and that makes for the best kind of basketball to enjoy. Each team has the capacity to match the other score for score and stop for stop. 

While the Warriors are and should be the favorites to win, their potential of being bested has never been higher. Both teams should embrace that reality. 

Edited by Jazmyn Brown.

How many Western Conference Finals has Chris Paul played in besides '17-18?
Created 5/14/18
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