The Houston Rockets announced today that guard Chris Paul will miss Saturday’s game at Golden State with a right hamstring strain that occurred during the fourth quarter of last night’s game against the Warriors. He will be re-evaluated after the team returns to Houston.
Golden State was already heavily favored at home. This will tilt the odds even further in its favor.
But the Rockets aren’t completely incapable without Paul. They went 15-9 without him this season. James Harden and Eric Gordon can assume extra playmaking duty.
Still, this is a massive loss. When Harden is overburdened offensively, his defense suffers. Gordon is already playing a lot of minutes, so greater responsibility will come in role, not playing time. To fill Paul’s minutes, Mike D’Antoni will have to expand a rotation he had masterfully tightened. Gerald Green could play more. Luc Mbah a Moute could return to the rotation.
A Game 7 looks increasingly likely. Will Paul return for that? The 2018 NBA title might hinge on that question.
Given how quickly the Rockets announced Paul would miss Game 6, there isn’t much reason for optimism about Paul’s availability three days from now, either.
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.
Mike D’Antoni’s innovation will lead Rockets to Western Conference Finals
Let’s rewind the clock for a minute. The year is 2004. Every song on the radio is either an Usher single or a track featuring — you guessed it — Usher. It’s the first season for Mike D’Antoni as the head coach of the Phoenix Suns. And while countless oral histories and even a book would eventually be written about the Seven Seconds or Less era in Phoenix, much of the talk gets caught up in the speed of those Suns teams.
Really, they were all about the 3-point line.
In a league which hadn’t yet caught on to the devastating analytical shift when it came to the 3-point shot, D’Antoni and his staff built a team around scoring from beyond the arc, and quickly. Remember, this is 2004. Stephen Curry just got his driver’s license. “Borat” won’t come out for another two years. Kevin Federline is on the front of magazines. It’s a completely different era.
While their flash of scoring took us by storm, but the Suns scoring from deep is what left a lasting impression on the NBA. During each of his four seasons in Phoenix, D’Antoni’s teams were first in 3-point percentage. They were no lower than fifth in attempts each of those years. What D’Antoni did was set off a chain reaction that is still being felt today, 14 years later. Just look at the NBA in 2018. How many teams do you see today running the break — complete with a thousand drag screens and secondary screens — as their primary offense?
How many do you see shooting 3-pointers at a pace that would make even George Mikan faint?
D’Antoni was and always has been an innovator. Those Suns teams left an indelible mark on the NBA. But when it came to D’Antoni, the narrative was that Phoenix was an incomplete idea. For all the rosy talk of the SSOL era, at the time it was lambasted as being too gimmicky — all offense and no defense, and because of Robert Horry, an untenable way to win a championship. The tongue-clicking followed D’Antoni after stints with both the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers. Maybe some felt as though the NBA had taken his idea and ran with it, advancing it far past the capabilities of the West Virginia native.
Boy, was that wrong.
D’Antoni is now at the helm of the Houston Rockets, the team sitting atop the Western Conference playoffs and ready to take on the Minnesota Timberwolves. On the precipice of innovation yet again, D’Antoni is a Coach of the Year candidate after mashing two future hall of famers in Chris Paul and James Harden together to form a potent offensive and defensive squad.
Starting the season, many felt both would need the ball too much for the experiment to work. Last year in Houston, the Rockets were the subject of some revelation when Harden made the switch to point guard full-time. Without Blake Griffin or a similar-passing big man to run his “get” action with, Paul’s off-ball movement would be restricted. It just didn’t seem to fit.
#Rockets are really adding different variations to “Thru-Hold”, action where Paul or Harden set-up in the post and run a 3-man action. Here, instead coming off a curl, EG sets a back screen. Help-defense takes away Black, but ensuing rotations scrambles D. pic.twitter.com/5Vth2C2CqJ
Now, of course, we all have egg on our faces. D’Antoni’s adjustments have gone beyond intermingling Harden and Paul at the two guard positions. The team staggers their minutes in a way that’s a nightmare for opposing teams, and D’Antoni doesn’t force either of them to play in each other’s style. Meanwhile, the pick-and-roll action with Clint Capela is devastating, and in both secondary transition and the halfcourt, D’Antoni’s sets to get shooters open like Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, and Trevor Ariza.
It’s that dynamism that has given Houston the edge over their opponents, even if there are some naysayers about their vaunted top-6 defensive rating. The Rockets’ biggest hurdle at this point, especially as they look ahead to the second round and beyond, is the status of Luc Mbah a Moute and Ryan Anderson. Houston’s quick-switching defense is going to miss the versatile wing in Mbah a Moute, who guards four of five positions consistently. Anderson’s shooting will be missed, especially against a squad that defends the 3-point line well in the Timberwolves.
Via @knarsu3 defensive dashboard, here's just how versatile LRMAM is. One of just 7 players in the league guarding PG-SG-SF-PF on at least 15% of his possessions. pic.twitter.com/XT8UEyeu5a
Yes, losing Mbah a Moute is a huge blow to Houston’s chances to get to the NBA Finals. In fact, it’s one of the worst things that could happen to them when viewed in the context of the Golden State Warriors slowly gaining their health. But if we’re going to take the last decade-and-a-half seriously, and consider just how much adaptation and shaping of modern NBA strategy D’Antoni has done, it’s still going to be hard to bet against him.
The Timberwolves just barely scraped their way into the playoffs, and if Houstan can get past Jimmy Butler & Co. it has a real shot at playing either the Utah Jazz, who they swept this year, or the Oklahoma City Thunder, who Harden harbors an unshakable grudge against.
In fact, if Mbah a Moute really is out for up to four weeks, and if Anderson’s ankle continues to nag him, how D’Antoni guides the Rockets toward the Western Conference Finals might be one of the best storylines of his career. There’s serendipity in the father of the modern NBA offense bursting past the competition, swapping rotations and adding wrinkles you didn’t see coming, all with a fully-realized version of what he started some 14 years ago.
Hopefully this time nobody body checks one of D’Antoni’s star point guards into the scorer’s table. At least this time, he’s got two of them.
76ers look dangerous when adjusting for playoff rotations
Yet, any season-long metrics – including win-loss record – commonly used to predict the playoffs factor in those players. So, I’ve found how many points per 100 possessions teams score and allow when five players projected to be in the postseason rotation are on the floor together.
This is hardly a perfect measure. Teams rarely announce their playoff rotations, so we’re left with my predictions of which players will receive regular playing time in the first round. The minutes distribution among players in the adjusted rating can vary from what it’ll be during the playoffs. This doesn’t take into account opponent quality. Some teams have larger samples than others. Home-court advantage is not considered.
But I find it useful, another data point among the many necessary to evaluate the upcoming playoffs. It shows how the players we project to see on the court the next couple weeks have played together, without someone else affecting the chemistry.
Here’s each team’s offensive, defensive and net ratings adjusted from the regular season to counting only lineups that include five players projected to be in the first-round playoff rotation (using nbawowy! to calculate):
3. Philadelphia 76ers
Offensive rating: 110.6 to 110.1
Defensive rating: 106.1 to 99.4
Net rating: +4.5 to +10.7
1. Toronto Raptors
Offensive rating: 116.1 to 118.5
Defensive rating: 107.8 to 108.2
Net rating: +8.3 to +10.3
7. Milwaukee Bucks
Offensive rating: 111.1 to 116.7
Defensive rating: 111.4 to 109.1
Net rating: -0.3 to +7.6
4. Cleveland Cavaliers
Offensive rating: 115.0 to 116.4
Defensive rating: 113.9 to 109.1
Net rating: +1.1 to +7.3
8. Washington Wizards
Offensive rating: 111.2 to 113.4
Defensive rating: 110.6 to 108.1
Net rating: +0.6 to +5.3
6. Miami Heat
Offensive rating: 108.2 to 112.1
Defensive rating: 107.8 to 107.4
Net rating: +0.4 to +4.7
5. Indiana Pacers
Offensive rating: 111.2 to 111.7
Defensive rating: 109.7 to 108.0
Net rating: +1.5 to +3.7
2. Boston Celtics
Offensive rating: 109.7 to 106.6
Defensive rating: 105.9 to 104.1
Net rating: +3.8 to +2.5
1. Houston Rockets
Offensive rating: 118.0 to 124.3
Defensive rating: 109.1 to 112.1
Net rating: +8.9 to +12.2
5. Utah Jazz
Offensive rating: 109.5 to 111.9
Defensive rating: 105.3 to 100.7
Net rating: +4.2 to +11.2
6. New Orleans Pelicans
Offensive rating: 111.2 to 115.2
Defensive rating: 109.7 to 105.3
Net rating: +1.5 to +9.9
3. Portland Trail Blazers
Offensive rating: 111.2 to 113.6
Defensive rating: 108.5 to 108.1
Net rating: +2.7 to +5.5
8. Minnesota Timberwolves
Offensive rating: 115.1 to 116.5
Defensive rating: 112.9 to 111.4
Net rating: +2.2 to +5.1
7. San Antonio Spurs
Offensive rating: 109.6 to 112.4
Defensive rating: 106.5 to 108.1
Net rating: +3.1 to +4.3
2. Golden State Warriors
Offensive rating: 115.1 to 109.0
Defensive rating: 108.6 to 106.7
Net rating: +6.5 to +2.3
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
Offensive rating: 112.9 to 114.2
Defensive rating: 109.3 to 111.9
Net rating: +3.6 to +2.3
The 76ers’ projection doesn’t include Joel Embiid, who expects to miss Game 1 against the Heat. Replace Richaun Holmes with Embiid, and the 76ers’ offensive/defensive/net ratings jump to 116.9/98.6/+18.3. Wow!
These rankings could overrate the 76ers, though. Their schedule softened late, after Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli arrived post-buyout. Counting those two in the postseason rotation could skew the sample.
Nearly all teams annually see their net rating improve once adjusted for the playoff rotation. This year, three teams get worse with the adjustment. All three – Celtics (Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, Daniel Theis), Warriors (Stephen Curry) and Thunder (Andre Roberson) – are missing key players due to injury.
The adjustment pegs four lower seeds ahead of their first-round opponent – Bucks over Celtics, Jazz over Thunder, Pelicans over Trail Blazers, Spurs over Warriors.
Utah became a different team once Rudy Gobert got healthy.
The Pelicans projected postseason rotation is especially tight. They might need to rely more on lesser players than projected here, lest they risk getting worn down.
Whichever team drew depleted Boston was clearly in (relatively) good shape. The Bucks might be the best of the teams – also, Heat and Wizards – that were in the running.
I expected the Cavaliers to improve even more with the adjustment. Isaiah Thomas trying to play his way back into form was so destructive for them. Perhaps, LeBron James dialing it up will be enough for them to win the East again.
The Rockets’ offense will be awesome. They’ll miss Luc Mbah a Moute defensively.