The questions remaining in the Western Conference Finals aren’t about what Golden State can do — we’ve seen that. They are the better team. There’s no doubt they can close out the series.
The questions are all for Houston. They have fought hard and lost two games, then been dominated in another. The Rockets are down 3-0 but at home for Game 4 Monday night with one more chance to show their resolve and answer some of the myriad of questions the Warriors pose for them.
With that, we’ll focus on Houston heading into Game 4: Here are three things to watch from the Rockets.
1) How much fight does Houston have left? After Game 4 against the Clippers in the second round of the playoffs, I was in the Rockets’ locker room and thought they looked defeated. Houston was down 3-1, and after a couple tough losses they looked like players in other playoff locker rooms I’ve seen, ones where the team came out the next game and rolled over to accept their fate. But that’s not these Rockets. Houston has been the most resilient team in the NBA this season. Injuries forced changing lineups all season and would have devastated a lot of teams, yet the Rockets kept on winning — 56 games, all the way to the two seed in the West. Against the Clippers, they battled back to take the series. The question here isn’t can Houston battle back to take this series from the Golden State — it can’t — but will it come out with that fight and spirit and take Game 4? I expect they will show that resolve.
2) Expect an aggressive, attacking James Harden — but will Dwight Howard join him? In Game 3 the Warriors switched up their defense on Harden. Instead of a steady diet of Klay Thompson, the primary defender became Harrison Barnes, with his length, and the physicality of Andre Iguodala mixed in with Thompson for stretches. It threw Harden off, he shot just 3-of-16 on his way to 17 points. Harden has not gotten to the line at his regular clip this series. He was fantastic in the first two games of the series but he did it mostly by hitting challenging shots — like step-back jumpers — in the midrange. That was not a formula for long-term success. With their season on the line in front of his home fans, expect Harden to be cooking — expect him to be aggressive, attack, make plays and draw fouls. He will not go quietly into that good night. Another question tied to this: Will Harden and Dwight Howard finally start to play well off each other. As Tom Haberstroh brilliantly pointed out at ESPN, The Rockets’ two best players still play next to each other not with each other. They have the potential to be a devastating force together, but will they finally start to take some advantage of that?
3) Will the Rockets finally defend Stephen Curry well? Through three games in this series, 34 of Stephen Curry’s 62 shots have been uncontested. That’s 54.8 percent of his looks (including 10 of 19 in Game 3). We’re talking about the best shooter in the game, the one guy on the Warriors you can’t lose track of, the guy you have to help on, and more than half of his shots are not contested (according to the NBA’s Sports VU camera data). While we can quibble with the numbers, the fact is Jason Terry and other Rockets defenders lose Curry off the ball far too often. The Rockets have struggled with Curry on the pick-and-roll, and when a big is switched onto him Curry feasts. When he beats the first line of defense — which he will do, he’s good — too often the help isn’t reading the play correctly. Curry is also a gifted passer, and even when the Rockets play him correctly one of the many shooters on the Warriors roster gets a little space and the ball seems to find him. That said, you still have to start slowing Golden State by slowing Curry. He’s is not going to be stopped, but a team can make his job difficult — Mike Conley did it for the Grizzlies, spending the series in Curry’s jersey. If the Rockets want to get some stops, it has to start with slowing Curry down. Maybe that means slowing the pace down a little, but the problem is that doesn’t play to the Rockets’ strengths.