Houston has a chance — it can beat Golden State.
This is the best team the Warriors have faced in the Kevin Durant era — a team built by Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey with knocking off the Warriors in mind. It’s not just adding a future Hall of Famer in Chris Paul to the backcourt with James Harden that made them better, it’s adding switchable defenders such as Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker to the mix so they have the wings to better match up with Golden State. It’s the style of play, the role players, the entire package that works for Houston.
It all led to 65 wins and home court advantage for the Rockets — but now the real test starts in the Western Conference Finals against the Warriors. Best of seven between the two best teams in the NBA.
Here are five things the Rockets must do to win the series.
1) Find a way to slow Kevin Durant. Stephen Curry and his shooting is the fire that fuels the Warriors, with Klay Thompson creating sparks of his own. Draymond Green is the match, the accelerant that gets that fire started. Those guys can do it by themselves — they won a title before Durant got to town.
However, Durant is the X-factor, the single hardest player to account for and slow on Golden State. The reason is he can simply hit any shot — teams think they force Durant into tough shots (say a 17-foot fadeaway) and he just eats their lunch and buries it. He is as good a pure scorer as the game has, and with his height/length and high release, he is almost impossible to block or contest well.
The Rockets have to find a way — they can’t let KD just take over games. That starts before he gets the shot up — Durant’s handles are good but that’s the place to challenge him, try to get steals and don’t let him get to his spots on the floor. After that be physical with him, body him, get into him, don’t let him get comfortable. Do all that and Durant is still going to get some buckets, but the Rockets defenders — and there will be multiple of them, including Tucker and Clint Capela — have to make him work hard for those and be less efficient. If Durant goes off, the Rockets will struggle to keep up.
2) Clint Capela has to be a monster. So far in these playoffs, the young Rockets’ center has outplayed Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert. It has been the Clint Capela coming out party, extending upon what he did all regular season long. Capela is crucial to this team’s success, and the Rockets are 50-5 in games where Harden, Paul, and Capela all play for a reason.
Golden State presents a different test. Caplea will destroy Kevon Looney if Steve Kerr starts that way, but the real test is when the Warriors go small to the “Hamptons’ five” lineups with Green at center — Capela will have to defend on the perimeter, handle Durant, and be able to stay on the floor. A lot of good bigs can’t be used against the Warriors small lineups, Capela has the athleticism and ability to cover on the perimeter to stay on the floor when the small lineups get rolling. He has to do that. The Rockets need his rim protection and what he can do on the short-roll after setting the pick (because the Warriors will, at times, trap Harden and Paul to make them give up the ball). For the Rockets to win this series, Capela has to outplay Green and every other big the Warriors throw out there.
3) Isolate and attack Curry with Harden and CP3. The biggest misunderstanding about these Rockets is that they are a classic Mike D’Antoni seven-seconds-or-less team. They are not. These Rockets were 14th in the NBA in pace during the regular season and have played even slower in the playoffs so far. More accurately, in the regular season, 20.3 percent of the Warriors possessions started in transition (highest percentage in the NBA), while the Rockets were at 15.8 percent (11th in the league). Which brings us to another note about this series — if the tempo is up and it’s a track meet, advantage Warriors.
What these Rockets do better than any other team is hunt out mismatches and exploit them. They use picks to force defensive switches to the matchup they want, then the Rockets attack that mismatch in isolation (or directly off that pick). In this series they are going to go at Curry hard — he is the weakest defensive link on that team. Curry has welcomed this challenge — and the Warriors have seen it before. Plenty. They have ways to “hide” Curry and keep him out of these situations, and also to help and cover for him. Curry is a better defender than people give him credit for, but if his knee injury is still limiting his lateral movement he can be vulnerable in space. The Rockets are going to go at him.
Conversely, another thing to watch — the Warriors will do the exact same thing to Harden in the halfcourt. Whichever player/team can defend better when the opponent works to isolate the weakest link will have a huge advantage.
4) It has to rain threes — every game. This is obvious but it has to be mentioned — the Rockets need to not only take but make their threes. More than 15 a game (their regular season average). Houston had 18 made threes (and shot 46 percent from deep) in their close-out win against the Jazz. However, the Rockets won Game 4 in that series with just 10 made threes and shooting 26 percent from three — they are not going to hold the Warriors to just 87 points and win that way. The game the Rockets lost to the Jazz they made only nine threes. They can’t run hot-and-cold from deep in this series, they don’t have that margin for error anymore. The Rockets need to win at least a couple of games this series just because they are ridiculously hot from three as a team. However, any nights they go cold they will lose, the Warriors are just too good.
5) James Harden and Chris Paul both must be on. In that closeout game against the Jazz, the headlines were about CP3 going off — 41 points, eight made threes, 10 assists. He was dominant. He had to be — Harden was off with 18 points on 22 shots, 1-of-7 from three, and almost as many turnovers as assists. Against most teams that is a luxury the Rockets have with their depth — a lousy night by one star can be made up for by a hot one from the other.
Not anymore. Against the Warriors and their depth and versatility, the Rockets need both stars to play well every game. No more off nights, no hitting the wall, no nights of frustration or it will cost the team a game. The Rockets’ two best players have to step up on the biggest stage.
The Rockets can beat the Warriors, but their margin for error is almost nil. They have to have their stars playing at their peak, Clint Capela owning the paint, and for the threes to fall. All things that can happen. The Rockets can win this series. However, it will take the best version of themselves to do that, and we’ll see if they can summon that enough in a seven-game series.