Western Conference Finals Preview

– Jim Bearor

The number two seeded Rockets won Game 7 against the Clippers on Sunday afternoon, and they only have Monday to rest before kicking off the Western Conference Finals on Tuesday at Golden State, the number one seed.

No Rest for the Bearded
Houston just completed one of the greatest comebacks in the history of playoff basketball, but they won’t have any time to collect themselves and take a breather before being thrown right back into battle against the best team in the league. The Warriors punched their ticket to the next round on Friday night and have had Saturday, Sunday and Monday to take a step back and mentally refresh a little bit before Tuesday night’s Game 1. The situation the Rockets find themselves in – trying to maintain peak focus after winning a physically and emotionally taxing series – deserves to be in the short discussion previewing this series.

By the end of Game 1, it should be fairly obvious how this lack of rest has affected Houston, and how having the weekend off to regroup changes things for the Warriors. Hot as they are, I don’t see the Rockets going into Oracle Arena and controlling the atmosphere. Golden State is just too good, and the home crowd in Oakland is always a factor.

Alright, I’ve made my point. Let’s transition to the more tangible stuff.

Season Series
Though the starting lineups for these two teams haven’t been completely consistent through the season series, there is no question that the Warriors have owned the Rockets this year. All four encounters resulted in double digit victories for Golden State. Dwight Howard wasn’t present for the first two games, so Andrew Bogut owned the glass in his absence. Howard did play the other two games though, and although he did make a difference down low, Houston was unable to prevent the signature quick, backbreaking runs where Curry and Thompson blow a game open before you can say Splash Bros.

How do they match up?
Well, the Rockets are capable of hanging with the Warriors, at least in terms of tempo. Both offenses are known for their ability to put up a bunch of points in a hurry, but outside of that, Golden State has the edge in nearly every other aspect of the game.

James Harden’s defense has significantly improved this year (it’s hard not to improve when you played defense like this), but he definitely still has his lapses. Dwight Howard has been looking like the Howard of old these playoffs, but – as it is with Harden – if he mentally slips a little and gets into foul trouble, suddenly the only advantage for the Rockets is gone as he is forced to play more conservative.

James Harden will likely be covered by Klay Thompson for the majority of the series, as Thompson’s size (6’7”) will limit Hardens ability to create space and draw the fouls he normally would from a smaller defender. If this is the case, Houston will likely turn to its 3-point shooting as it has all season.

Outside shooting has been a great strength for the Rockets all season, but Golden State’s depth at the wings could prove troublesome. They have Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green, then Andre Iguodala and David Lee coming off the bench. There will be pressure on Josh Smith and Trevor Ariza to continue to contribute on offense the way they have throughout this tough playoff run, especially since the bench of the Rockets is clearly outmatched.

This game pits the one seed against the two seed, but any way you slice it, the Warriors are the stronger team. They had the best regular season of any team, and they’ve had a relatively easy path through the playoffs so far. Wear and tear is much more likely to affect the Rockets, and they were weaker to begin with. I really did try to find an area of the game where Houston is noticeably better than Golden State, but I don’t think there is.

X Factors
Klay Thompson – As stated earlier, Thompson will likely be the guy that is tasked with containing James Harden for most of the series. I hate to simplify an entire playoff series to a single matchup, but if Harden is held close to the 40% mark for field goal percentage, the Rockets won’t be able to keep up with the scoring pace of the Warriors.

On the other side of the court, Klay Thompson can’t have any space to operate, which means Harden, or whoever draws that assignment, will have to be all over him, all game, every game. That is a lot to ask of Harden, when considering his history on defense and his enormous scoring workload.
Trevor Ariza/Whoever has to guard Steph Curry (HA!) – On top of all the tall tasks I’ve touched on so far, the Rockets have to do something to get in the MVP’s way. Curry is going to get his, but preventing a couple fast breaks or forcing him to pass out of what normally would be a shot could make a huge difference for Houston. Ariza was in charge of defending Chris Paul for most of the Clippers series, although he would sometimes guard Blake Griffin for stretches.

Just as Klay Thompson’s size should help him get in Harden’s way, Ariza provides a physical mismatch for Curry.

If the Rockets win this series, it will be because they executed their game plan perfectly, James Harden didn’t let up on defense, Howard dominated the boards while avoiding foul trouble, and they hit almost all the “important” 3-pointers. I just don’t see all of these things happening.

The Warriors are well rested, they have home court advantage, they have a deeper roster, they have the most explosive offense in the NBA, and they have the league MVP. The Rockets steal one game at home, but the series is never close.

Warriors in 5.

jimbearorBy Jim Bearor, @JimBearor


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