We all know what the Golden State Warriors are capable of — we have seen them at their “Thanos got all the infinity stones” peak where nothing can stop them. We witnessed it in the second half two days ago.
However, this is a Houston team explicitly built with beating these Warriors in mind, a Rockets team that won 65 games this season and forced Game 7 in the Western Conference Finals. This is a very good team. A team capable of winning Game 7 in its home court, with or without Chris Paul.
However, their margin for error is gone (even if CP3 is back, he’s not going to be near 100 percent). Here are the five things Houston has to do if it’s going to dethrone the champs and move on to the NBA Finals.
1) Knock down their threes. It’s obvious, but it doesn’t make it any less true. The Rockets made more three pointers this season than any team in NBA history (breaking their own record of a season ago). The three-ball is critical to the Rockets’ offense, and that importance only goes up if Paul is out. From the opening tip, whether it’s James Harden on stepbacks, Eric Gordon in transition, or P.J. Tucker in the corner on a kick-out, the three ball has to fall.
The Rockets did that in the first quarter of Game 6, the Warriors seemed confused on defensive assignments (Kevin Durant, in particular, missed a couple switches and did not pick up shooters in transition) and the Rockets took advantage. The Rockets were 11-of-22 from three in the first half of Game 6 and up 10, they need to repeat both that volume and nearly that percentage.
The Rockets are going to take 35 or more threes in this game, but how well will the Warriors contest those? Will the Rockets hit them anyway? The Rockets need to make 17 or more threes in this game to give themselves a shot. Those cannot be forced, it needs to come with room in transition, or when Harden drives the lane and gets into the middle, forcing help and rotations and opening up shooters on the perimeter.
2) Take care of the basketball — limit the turnovers. In Game 6, the Rockets turned the ball over on 21.3 percent of their possessions — more than one-in-five times down the court they came away without a shot, just giving the ball back to Golden State. In the second half, that percentage was slightly higher. Live ball turnovers are an accelerant for the Warriors offense.
“The problem with (the Warriors) getting 115 (points in Game 6) is it’s because we turned it over about 20 times and that’s a double whammy — we don’t score first of all and they get out in transition,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said.
That ties directly into…
3) Control the tempo — do not get into a transition battle with the Warriors. The Rockets played slightly faster in the first half of Game 6, with Paul not out there to slow things down, than they have the rest of the series. That may have caught the Warriors off guard a little in the first quarter, but Golden State adapted and we saw the results in the second half. The Warriors thrive at a high pace. These Rockets were 14th in pace in the NBA this season, they are not a D’Antoni seven seconds or less team, they are methodical and hunt mismatches, running only when it suits them. If Game 7 is a track meet, Houston will lose.
“We’ve got to dictate (the tempo) by our good play, we can guard them but we can guard them in the halfcourt, it’s tough in transition,” D’Antoni said. “That means we have to limit our turnovers.”
Limit turnovers and also get back in transition. When Harden attacks the rim and Clint Capela is lurking around the bucket looking for the offensive board, a miss means the Warriors have numbers going the other way. Houston has to make those shots and get back.
4) Defend so well in the half court the Warriors resort to Kevin Durant isolation ball. For long stretches of this series, the smooth switching defense of the Rockets has frustrated the “beautiful game” offense of the Warriors. The back cuts, the split cuts, the things the Warriors offense thrives off of have not been there. That has led to Golden State going to its fall-back — Durant isolations. Those are effective, Durant is the best scorer on the face of the earth right now, but it takes the Warriors out of their flow and makes them less dangerous, and less prone to massive runs.
“We made way too many mistakes defensively, like we did in Game 3,” D’Antoni said of the Game 6 effort. “We cured that in games 4 and 5, we’ve got to get back to that.”
One twist, the Warriors attacked the switching more in Game 6 with Curry’s ball handling — and when he had the ball the Warriors moved much more crisply off it. Curry has the skills as a point guard to break down the defense and find the open man with his passing, not just drain ridiculous threes. That ball movement and passing led to Klay Thompson getting open and no Warrior’s shooter can get as white-hot for a stretch as him. It led to the entire Warriors’ second-half run, and the Rockets need to have a defensive counter to that (something where they really could use Paul back).
Which leads us to…
5) Withstand the Warriors third-quarter run (or whenever it happens). We all know it’s coming. Including the Rockets. Curry will start draining 29-footers. Thompson will hit shots in a sliver of space. When the Warriors get rolling suddenly Draymond Green’s threes are falling, Shaun Livingston is slashing into the lane for easy buckets, and it’s an unstoppable avalanche.
Houston must keep the run relatively short — 11-0, 15-3 — and not lose their heads, just keep playing their game. Don’t try to get it all back with one shot. Execute the game plan, force the Warriors into the kind of game they don’t want to play, and hit their own threes. Grind the Warriors down. Do that and the Rockets can win. Get sucked into the pace, press to match the Warriors run, and the Rockets players can make early tee times for Tuesday.