Game 1 Team Totals: Warriors 115.3, Rockets 110.2
Season Series: 3-1 Rockets
Season Team Net Ratings: Warriors 2nd (+6.4), Rockets 5th (+4.8)
Current Injuries: Stephen Curry (right ankle, day-to-day), Klay Thompson (right ankle, day-to-day), DeMarcus Cousins (left quad tear, out indefinitely), Damian Jones (left pectoral muscle, out for the season)
In last year’s playoffs no team came closer to dethroning the Golden State Warriors than the Houston Rockets, who held a 3-2 series lead before falling in seven games. That series was defined by two things for the Rockets: Chris Paul injuring his hamstring late in the team’s Game 5 victory, and the team going on a run in which it missed 27 consecutive three-point attempts during Game 7. Houston didn’t rack up as many wins this season, but with the changes made to the rotation throughout the season this group may be better equipped to finish the job against the reigning champions.
Houston won three of the four regular season meetings, and they scored at least 104 points in each of the four games. Houston was without key contributors in two of its three wins, with Paul and Eric Gordon both sitting out the January 3 matchup (135-134) and James Harden missing the 118-112 victory in late February. Golden State scored 106 or more in three of the four regular season matchups, with the exception being a 107-86 loss on November 15 (Stephen Curry did not play in that one). It’s also worth noting that DeMarcus Cousins, who is unlikely to be able to return this postseason due to a torn left quadriceps muscle, was not available for the first two meetings.
Golden State, which lost Cousins in Game 2 of the first round series against the Clippers, had three lineups that were used in all six games with the “Hamptons 5” being the most-often used. The quintet of Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green spent an average of 6.8 minutes per game on the court together, producing a net rating of minus-1.2. And that net rating is only that low because of how well they played together in Game 6, with the Hamptons 5 producing a net rating of 24.2 during their 11 minutes on the court. Of course Kevin Durant being virtually unstoppable during the series-clinching victory helps matters.
The best lineup of the three used in all six games was the one in which Thompson was replaced by Kevon Looney, giving the Warriors a “true” interior player. The Curry/Durant/Iguodala/Green/Looney quintet, which ranked third in minutes played, produced ratings of 163.8 (offensive) and 87.5 (defensive), with a net rating of 76.3. Of the six lineups that were used for at least 17 minutes in the series, this was the best from a net rating standpoint. Looney and Andrew Bogut, who moved into the starting lineup when Cousins went down, aren’t going to be stars when it comes to their individual numbers during this series. But both are in spots where their “real” value will be greater than their fantasy value, as the Warriors will need a post presence to account for Rockets starting center Clint Capela. Looney averaged 7.3 points and 4.5 rebounds in 18.0 minutes per game against the Clippers, shooting 64.3% from the field, with Bogut adding 5.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 14.7 minutes per while making 66.7% of his field goal attempts.
The second-most used lineup in the first round was the starting five of Curry, Thompson, Durant, Green and Bogut, with that group producing a net rating of plus-4.7 in 39 minutes. Curry and Thompson are worth watching due to the fact that both tweaked their right ankles in Friday’s Game 6, but they expect to be available to play in Sunday’s series opener. Curry shot the ball very well against Los Angeles, posting shooting splits of 50.0% from the field, 50.0% from three and 97.3% from the foul line with averages of 24.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.2 steals and 4.0 three-pointers in 33.5 minutes per game.
By comparison, in the three games he played against Houston in the regular season Curry averaged 28.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.0 steals and 4.3 three-pointers per contest with shooting splits of 47.4/37.1/90.0. While it was Austin Rivers who had the highest number of possessions defending Curry during the regular season, it’s more likely that this will be a job for CP3 (who, as noted above, missed time due to injury) for the majority of this series. Paul played in three of the four regular season meetings, averaging 19.0 points, 9.0 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 2.7 three-pointers per game with splits of 45.0% from the field, 42.1% from three and 100.0% from the foul line.
Paul didn’t shoot the ball well from three in Houston’s “gentleman’s sweep of the Jazz,” making just 21.4% of his attempts, and his assists dipped to 5.2 per game. While this wasn’t a major issue against Utah, he’ll be up against a team with more prolific (and consistent) scoring options in this round. Thompson led the Warriors in possessions per game spent defending Paul in the regular season (20.0 per game), with Curry (14.5) and Iguodala (8.7) next in line. In addition to his work as a perimeter defender Thompson is also key offensively, either spotting up or working off of screens to supplement the efforts of Curry and Durant.
Thompson played in all four meetings between the Warriors and Rockets during the regular season, averaging 21.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.0 blocks and 3.0 three-pointers per with shooting splits of 46.1/40.0/100.0. He contributed 17.3 points, 2.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.3 blocks, 0.7 steals and 2.5 three-pointers per game in the first round, shooting 46.5% from the field, 41.7% from three and 90.0% from the foul line. Houston has a similar player in Eric Gordon, a good shooter (15.2 points, 2.6 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.2 blocks and 3.6 three-pointers per game with splits of 43.9/48.6/80.0 vs. Utah) whose defensive rating in the first round (104) was much better than the number produced during the regular season (115). Three Warriors players averaged at least 11.0 possessions per game defending Gordon during the regular season: Thompson (15.3), Iguodala (13.0) and Livingston (11.0).
At first glance Gordon defending Thompson would mean that James Harden would have to deal with Kevin Durant. But that isn’t how things played out during the regular season. PJ Tucker was the Rocket who most often defended KD, with an average of 37.0 possessions per game. Harden defended Durant an average of 14.5 possessions per game, and Durant shot 62.5% from the field in those situations. If Tucker struggles to keep Durant from going off, Houston would be in serious trouble. In the three games he played against Houston, Durant averaged 25.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.3 three-pointers per contest, shooting 47.4% from the field, 28.6% from three and 89.5% from the foul line, and he posted a net rating of minus-1.4 with the lone road game that he played in (minus-20.8 net rating) having a lot to do with that number.
As for Harden, the reigning MVP posted averages of 33.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 9.3 assists, 2.0 steals and 5.3 three-pointers per game against the Warriors, shooting 39.7% from the field, 32.7% from three and 84.6% from the foul line. The Warriors were one of the better teams in the league when it came to keeping Harden off of the foul line, as he averaged 8.7 attempts per game. In addition to making him as inefficient as possible in live-ball situations, Golden State will also need to avoid giving The Beard too many opportunities to score when the clock is stopped.
That’s easier said than done given Harden’s ability to keep opponents off balance with his “herky-jerky” moves, but Utah managed to do a good job of this in the final three games of the first round series. The difference: Utah was able to play behind Harden and funnel him towards an elite rim protector in Rudy Gobert. While he still scored at least 22 points in each of those games, and Houston won two of them to close out the series, Harden did not look as comfortable offensively. Bogut and Looney are both serviceable options in the post for the Warriors, but neither protects the paint at the level of a Gobert. Harden had a plus-8.9 net rating against the Warriors during the regular season, with his usage at 39.9%.
Defending Harden won’t be a one-man job; while there will be a primary defender it takes a group effort to keep him from not only going off himself but getting his teammates involved as well. Golden State has the potential to go small, which could be even more likely with Cousins unavailable, and that approach could help in their defending of Harden and the perimeter shooters he’s surrounded with. Draymond Green isn’t much of a shooter but his contributions as a screener and passer aren’t to be ignored. His defensive abilities will also be key, as in addition to leading the team in rebounds and assists during the postseason he’s also blocking a team-best 1.8 shots per game. Green’s defense will be critical in spots where the Warriors go small, especially if this happens when Clint Capela is on the floor for Houston.
Capela fared well in the regular season meetings, averaging 15.0 points, 14.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game while shooting 55.6% from the field and 90.9% from the foul line. The 6-foot-10 center's value on offense comes not only from his ability to combine in ball screens and finish above the rim, but his rim runs (and rolls in the half court) open up passing lanes to the Rocket shooters. Capela may not be at the top of the list of players the Warriors will need to keep in check, but he will have their attention. Houston can also call upon the aforementioned Faried for minutes in the post, but he averaged a little over ten minutes per game in the first round. Wing Danuel House Jr. was Houston’s most often used reserve in the first round, as he averaged 23.0 minutes per game with Rivers (17.4 mpg) next in line.
Iguodala and Looney have been Golden State’s most effective reserves, with Alfonzo McKinnie playing nearly ten minutes per game. And after a solid effort in Game 2 of the first round series Quinn Cook struggled in Game 2, ultimately taking two DNP-CD’s before playing the final five minutes of Golden State’s series-clinching win Friday night.
On paper this series has all the makings of a classic, and while this is a new year one can’t help but wonder if Houston enters this matchup believing that it should have won last year’s seven-game battle. It’s incredibly difficult to knock off a champion, but as Ric Flair famously said “to be the man, you gotta beat the man.” Golden State is still Golden State, and with Curry and Durant leading the way they’ll be incredibly difficult to dethrone. But this feels a bit different with DeMarcus Cousins out. And with Capela now in a position where he can’t be played off the floor in this matchup, that could be a factor in the outcome.
I’ll take the Rockets in seven highly-entertaining games.