Rockets vs. Warriors Game 2: Five things to watch

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Houston and Golden State agree on one thing out of Game 1: Both know they can play better.

The Rockets saw the way they pounded the ball into the paint early, the way that put them ahead, and believe there is a blueprint for winning. They also need to get James Harden “playing downhill,” as Kevin McHale likes to say.

The Warriors see the impact of their small lineup, they know they can get more out of Klay Thompson, they feel they can defend better, they think they played their worst game of this series. This team does not lack for confidence.

What should we watch for in Game 2 Thursday night? Here are the five keys for Game 2.

1) Dwight Howard’s knee. There is no bigger story in this series; his status will have more of an impact on Game 2 than anything else. Howard has a sprained knee from when Josh Smith fell into it in Game 1, and Howard’s status is going to be a game-time decision Thursday night. Expect him to play, but if the version on the court is the limited Howard from the last three quarters of Game 1, it plays into the hands of the Warriors. We know that Golden State is going to go small with Draymond Green at the five for healthy stretches of Game 2. If Howard can’t punish Green inside, and get back fast enough in transition defense, he has to be on the bench.

2) How does Houston defend the Warriors’ small lineup? Golden State went with the small lineup for 16 minutes in Game 1 and were +18. Coach Steve Kerr is no dummy and said you can expect to see more of it going forward. The lineup that worked best in Game 1 had Green at the five to go with three guards in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Shaun Livingston — it works because the Warriors don’t suffer a defensive drop-off with this group. Whether with Howard or Clint Capella in the paint, or some other method, the Rockets have to find a counter to this lineup.

3) Rocket defenders may want to stick with Stephen Curry. In Game 1, Jason Terry hit a three to tie the game, and then proceeded to do a little trash talking coming up the court. Vintage Terry. However, the next two defensive possessions Terry lost Curry off the ball and gave up open corner threes. Unfortunately for the Rockets, also vintage Terry. Both Terry and Pablo Prigioni lost Curry a few times off the ball — 13 of Curry’s 22 shots in Game 1 were uncontested (according to the NBA’s SportsVU camera data). That’s far too many. He may hit the contested ones anyway, but if you don’t make Curry work hard for his looks you will pay a price.

4) James Harden needs to get to the line more. James Harden got to the free throw line six times in Game 1 (he averages more than 10 a game). Credit the Warriors’ defense for some of that, but the Rockets need to get Harden rolling like a bowling ball down the lane — gathering fouls and getting buckets at the basket. If Howard can’t get the Rockets points in the paint, Harden must. Expect to see an aggressive and attacking Harden from the opening tip.

5) The Rockets need more threes. In the regular season, the Rockets attempted a league-high 32.7 threes a game. In the playoffs that dipped to 28. But in Game 1 the Rockets only took 22 threes, hitting eight. They were 3-of-12 above the break. Again, give the Warriors defense some credit, they have been good at thwarting threes all season and into the playoffs. That said, the Rockets have to take more and make more threes. They need the extra points to hang with the Warriors, plus that will open up the paint. Jason Terry was 1-of-4, he needs to shoot better from there, and if they can free up Trevor Ariza (4-of-5 in Game 1) for more looks all the better. Or they can just hope Josh Smith gets hot (he’ll take them anyway).