Warriors: 67-15 (first place in Western Conference)
Rockets: 56-26 (second place in Western Conference)
(The Warriors swept season series 4-0 (and won every game by double digits.)
Warriors: Marreese Speights will miss at least Game 1 with a calf injury and could well miss much more of the series.
Rockets: Patrick Beverley had wrist surgery and is out for the postseason. Donatas Motiejunas is out for the playoffs (spinal surgery). K.J. McDaniels has a fractured elbow and will be out for this series.
OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (in first two rounds of playoffs)
Warriors: 107.4 points scored per 100 possessions (2nd in NBA); 98.8 points allowed per 100 possessions (5th in NBA).
Rockets: 105.9 points scored per 100 possessions (6th in NBA); 106.8 points allowed per 100 possessions (12th in NBA).
THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES
1) Who can defend the three ball? These are the No. 1 and 2 teams in the playoffs in made three pointers per game — sorry Phil Jackson, but the teams that lean heavily on the three are doing quite well this postseason. Both of these teams have the three pointer as a central part of their offense, and the defense that can better defend the arc will have taken a big step toward winning.
That favors the Warriors. During the regular season, the Warriors defended the three-point line well — they allowed 21.4 three point attempts a game (seventh fewest in the NBA) and their opponents shot 33.7 percent (fifth lowest). In the playoffs the Warriors have done even better — 17.5 shots allowed and a 29.4 shooting percentage. During the season, the Rockets allowed 22.8 threes a night (middle of the NBA pack) but teams shot a league-low 32.2 percent. In the playoffs, teams are still shooting 32 percent against the Rockets, but they are taking more shots, 27.6 per game (part of that is skewed by the shootouts with Dallas).
One other advantage for the Warriors: When Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson or Draymond Green get chased off the arc, they can drive to the basket or pull up in the midrange and knock down shots. Harden can do that for the Rockets, but guys like Trevor Ariza, Jason Terry, and Pablo Prigioni are far less versatile that way.
2) Can Klay Thompson slow James Harden? If James Harden wants to prove his point about the MVP race — that he deserved the honor because he did more for his team — he has the stage to do it. But it’s not going to be easy. Klay Thompson is a good man defender and he draws the primary assignment. Beyond that the Warriors will switch nearly every pick with another good defender, nobody helps and recovers as well as them defensively, and they have Andrew Bogut in the paint to clean up messes. It worked during the team’s regular season meetings — Harden shot 24.1 percent from three and had fewer shots in the restricted area (and more from the inefficient midrange) against the Warriors than he did on average. If Houston is going to win this series, Harden needs to be the MVP.
3) Dwight Howard has to be key for Houston’s offense. Dwight Howard had a good series against the Clippers, despite being matched up against the ultra-athletic DeAndre Jordan (who is a good defender). Howard needs to be more than good this series. Sure, Andrew Bogut is a quality defender, too, but not near the athlete Howard faced last round. Howard is going to be involved in a lot of pick-and-rolls with Harden, and he has to blow up the usually reliable Golden State defense. He needs to be aggressive and if he can get Bogut in foul trouble things will open up for Houston somewhat. Howard also needs to be fantastic defensively — move his feet to blow up pick-and-roll plays, plus defend the rim.
Give the Rockets credit — they have made the plays when they’ve had to, their role players have stepped up, and they are playing their best basketball of the season. But this is a rough matchup for them. The Rockets have played at a faster pace than any other team in the playoffs, but now they face a team that will thrive at that tempo. Golden State is more diverse offensively and better defensively, plus they have depth and will not wilt as the series goes on. It’s been an impressive run by the Rockets, but this is where it ends. The Warriors in five.