Rockets have sucked Warriors into their style of game, then been better at it

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Through an 82-game regular season, the Golden State Warriors averaged 322.7 passes a game — the ball flew around the court with energy, found the open man and he buried the shot. For the season, 63.1 percent of the Warriors’ buckets were assisted. It was egalitarian. It was modern NBA basketball. It was “the beautiful game.”

The Houston Rockets, on the other hand, averaged 253.3 passes per game, fewest in the NBA. What they did lead the league in was isolation sets — 14.5 percent of their offense was the old-school style that the Warriors shunned. It worked for the Rockets, they scored an impressive 112 points per 100 possessions on those plays, but it looked more like a 1990s slog than a Mike D’Antoni offense.

In Game 5, the Warriors had 257 passes and 56 percent of their buckets were assisted (the first time that number got over 50 percent in a couple of games). In turn, isolations were the third most common kind of play the Warriors ran in the game (which was better than they did in Game 4, but still not who they normally are). Add in post-ups, which are essentially isolations just down on the block, and you get 25.7 percent of the Warriors plays in Game 5 being one-on-one.

The Warriors have been sucked into the Rockets’ game, and Houston is better at it.

The Rockets are up 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals and in the last two games have been the better clutch team. The better fourth quarter team. The team imposing their style on the game when it matters. For years the versatility of the Warriors allowed them to win regardless of the style of play — slow it down and be physical, play fast and up-tempo, whatever teams tried to do — but not against these Rockets. Not in this throwback, isolation-heavy style.

If the Warriors can’t change that dynamic nothing else will matter, and they will be watching the Finals on television for the first time in four years.

For the Rockets, imposing their will and style starts with their defense. Since the first game of the season — which was against these Warriors back in October — the Rockets have switched everything on defense. It was assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik’s plan, his counter to the ball movement of Golden State and the many teams trying to emulate their style. Everybody in the NBA is switching more on defense, but nobody was doing it as much or with the gusto of the Rockets. For example, Utah switched a lot against Houston in the last playoff round, but with Rudy Gobert at center they tried to switch less with the big men, wisely preferring to keep Gobert back as a rim protector. That opened opportunities for the Rockets to attack.

Houston switched everything. All the time. Even when logic dictated they shouldn’t. Big man Clint Capela has the athleticism and instincts to guard on the perimeter, so they let him. Other teams try to tag out quickly from the mismatches switching can create (scram switches behind the play are trendy now), but the Rockets tend to live with the switch and just send help. What the Rockets became doing this all season is smooth and proficient with switching, and it has shown in this series.

Kevin Durant is supposed to be the counter to this — he is the Warriors best one-on-one player, and switch or no there is no good matchup to defend him. So the Warriors lean on him in these situations, they get him the rock a lot.

Durant had 10 isolations and six post-ups in Game 5 — 16 of his 29 plays were mano-a-mano contests. KD can excel at them, but as the Warriors start to slow it down and hunt out those mismatches they move the ball less, and they play into Rockets’ hands. They have slid into Houston’s style. Part of this was missing Andre Iguodala, both a good defender and a guy who keeps the ball moving on offense. Without him decisions change — there was a fourth-quarter play where Stephen Curry drove past his man, got into floater range, the Rockets brought help off the man from the corner, but now that is Kevon Looney, and Curry looked then decided to take the floater rather than make that pass to a non-shooter. Curry’s shot hit the back of the rim and bounced out.

The Rockets have slowed the game down, muddied it up, and they are comfortable playing this way. The Rockets have thrived in this style despite the fact James Harden has struggled (Chris Paul has had a couple of big fourth quarters). The Warriors can beat 28 other teams four times in seven games playing this style, too, because they have the talent. Just not Houston. The Rockets have plenty of talent too, their bench guy Eric Gordon is knocking down seemingly every shot he takes, and this series is being played on their terms.

Houston is just better at this style.

Golden State is not dead in this series — they go home for Game 6 and are expected to get Iguodala back. More importantly, the health of Chris Paul and his hamstring are up in the air.

But the Warriors need to get back to being themselves — playing faster, sharing the ball (despite pressure), and using that to get the open threes or driving dunks they use to bury teams. It will not be easy — the Warriors played their game for stretches in Game 4 at home, but like a cheesy horror movie villain, these Rockets refuse to die. They are relentless, and they’re aggressive with their switching. The Rockets are incredibly good, and they know who they are. They have been themselves this series (just with more missed threes).

If the Warriors don’t get back to being themselves, if they keep trying to beat the Rockets at Houston’s game, they will be on vacation in Cabo before June for the first time in years.

Lakers’ Jeanie Buss: “I have 100 percent confidence in Rob Pelinka”

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Internally, the Lakers believe they are on the right track: They signed LeBron James as a free agent, they spent years acquiring assets then turned those assets into Anthony Davis, and they believe the roster that will take the court next season will bring vindication for the front office and ownership group. The Lakers believe they will be back on top, where they belong.

From the outside, um, let’s just say there are doubts around the league. Doubts about all the picks — particularly the pick swaps and deferments — that the Lakers gave up to get Davis and now that could hurt them in the future. There are doubts about the ability of Rob Pelinka to build out a roster around LeBron and Davis that is truly a threat.

Jeanie Buss has no such doubts. Speaking to Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times (and other reporters) at the NBA Awards show Monday, Buss expressed nothing but confidence in Pelinka and the Lakers’ staff.

“I’ve always had confidence in Rob, whatever the speculation is out there,” Buss said. “We don’t need outside media to validate the things that we do. I’m very happy and I think we’re on the right path.”

“I have 100% confidence in him in running his basketball operations,” Buss said. “He’s brought us a great new head coach in Frank Vogel, whose teams have had a lot of success in the playoffs and who have played consistently ranking high in defense, which means not only does he emphasize defense but the players buy into his defensive schemes.”

The question isn’t Vogel’s credentials, although how a staff with Jason Kidd, Lionel Hollins, and other veteran coaches with big egos will mesh together is going to be interesting.

The question is talent.

The Lakers have the high end of that with LeBron and Davis, but when you think about the Laker title teams of the past it wasn’t just Shaq and Kobe, it was also Derek Fisher and Robert Horry and Rick Fox and a host of others. The same thing was true in this past Finals — the deeper team won because the Raptors could adapt and handle their star not being 100 percent.

Are the Lakers going to chase another star and then complete the roster with minimum salary players? Or, get two or three quality role players with their cap space to have a deeper team? Has this all been planned out and thought through? Maybe Rob Pelinka builds this roster out beautifully, but we only have one year of experience to judge him on, and that did not go well.

Buss may have confidence, she should, the rest of us are in wait and see mode.

The Greek Freak has arrived, Giannis Antetokounmpo wins NBA MVP

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Mike Budenholzer came in with a plan — an offense built around the fact no one man on the planet can guard Giannis Antetokounmpo.

It worked. The Bucks won 60 games and had the best record in the NBA. Budenholzer picked up Coach of the Year hardware for his efforts.

Now Antetokounmpo has won the NBA MVP award, edging out James Harden (who chose not to attend the NBA’s awards show in Los Angeles Monday). He was emotional in thanking teammates for helping him reach this point, then talking about his father.

Antetokounmpo averaged 27.7 points and 12.5 rebounds a game, but it was his ability to destroy any defender one-on-one that made the Bucks offense work. Either the Greek Freak got to the basket and finished, he drew a foul, or he drew so much attention the shooters that surrounded him on the floor had clean looks of their own. He also was the Bucks best defender, a guy tasked with tough assignments nightly.

Antetokounmpo was the best player on the best team.

Antetokounmpo won the award handily with 941 points to Harden’s 776. The Greek Freak had 78 of the 100 first place votes.

James Harden — who averaged 36.1 points, 7.5 assists, and 6.6 rebounds per game — finished second in the voting, Paul George of Oklahoma City was third. Harden has finished first or second in the voting for four of the past five seasons. Harden believed he deserved to win and was frustrated with another second.

Antetokounmpo is the first player from Europe to win the MVP award since Dirk Nowitzki in 2007.

Nikola Jokic came in fourth in the voting, Stephen Curry was fifth. Here are the full results:

 

 

Rudy Gobert wins NBA Defensive Player of the Year for second straight season

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Rudy Gobert owns the paint for the Utah Jazz.

And he owns the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award.

Gobert won his second straight DPOY award Monday night, beating out the other 2019 finalists Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George.

The Jazz had the second best defense in the regular season and it is completely built around Gobert and his abilities in the paint, which is what separated him for this award. Utah’s defense was 20.1 points per 100 possessions better when Gobert was on the court and gave up less than a point per possession with him as the anchor.

This was a deep field with players such as Myles Turner of the Pacers, Joel Embiid of the 76ers and others getting votes as well.

Bucks’ Mike Budenholzer named NBA Coach of the Year

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Mike Budenholzer unleashed Giannis Antetokounmpo and from the start that made him the Coach of the Year favorite (and maybe Antetokounmpo MVP).

It was a wire-to-wire win for Budenholzer, who was the frontrunner for this award from early on and was named the NBA Coach of the Year Monday night, the second time he has won this award (Atlanta in 2015).

Budenholzer was the favorite with good reason. The Bucks won 16 more games than the season before and had the best record in the NBA, they improved their net rating by +10.1, and became a top-five team on both ends of the floor. To be fair, part of Budenholzer’s success was a contrast to how poorly the previous coach handled this roster, but give Budenholzer credit for utilizing players well.

He beat out Doc Rivers of the Clippers and Mike Malone of the Nuggets in what was a very deep field for this award.