By Travis Kilpatrick
“We won two championships in three years. We don’t have to run around talking about how bad we want to play somebody. We want to win another championship and it don’t matter who is in the way of that. If you’re in the way of that, then you happen to be in the way.” These words spoken by Draymond Green on Tuesday after the Golden State Warriors defeated the New Orleans Pelicans in five games gives us all we need to know about the mindset of the Warriors heading into the conference finals. Daryl Morey, the GM of the Houston Rockets, has made no secret about his team being built specifically to beat the Warriors. It does not appear that the Warriors have the same mindset. Green said during the same conference, “We got a goal, and whoever is in the way of that goal, you know, then we got to see you. You got to see us. Alright, now they are in the way. Perfect. But we’re not running around talking about, man, I can’t wait, like I want them bad. No, we want a championship bad, another one. That’s the truth.” The stage is set, and on Monday night we will get to see the Western Conference Finals that we have all dreamt of since June 18th of last year when reports broke that Chris Paul was heading to the Rockets. Let’s take a look at what we can expect in this series, starting with the challengers.
The Houston Rockets were one of the best offenses in the league scoring 112.4 points per game. But on the flip side of that, they were also one of the best defenses in the league only allowing 103.9 points per game, which gave them a league leading 8.5 point differential per game. They will need every bit of those skills from both sides of the ball in order to beat the defending champs. The biggest question in my eyes is how the soon-to-be-named MVP, James Harden, will perform when the pressure is the highest. He has gone out this postseason to try to exorcise the demons left over from his abysmal game six last year against the Spurs. So far, he has played much better in this postseason averaging 28.5 points, 7.4 assists, 5.0 rebounds, and only 3.1 turnovers per game, but it’s hard for me to overlook his last two games against the Jazz. His combined shooting stats from those last two games are 15-44 (34.1%) from the field and 2-14 (14.3%) from three and 11 turnovers. Luckily for Harden, he was being carried by CP3, who was brought in this offseason specifically to cover when Harden is slumping. It worked against the Jazz, but it will not work against the Warriors. James Harden will be guarded, at least initially, by Klay Thompson so his numbers may be down. However, he will need to find a way to make his presence felt as the MVP. If I were the Rockets I would definitely try to start the game with Clint Capela in my lineup as the Rockets are 50-5 with the combination of Harden, Paul, and Capela playing together. If Capela can not keep up with the small ball death lineup of the Warriors, the Rockets will look to Luc Mbah a Moute to fill that center spot. The small ball Rockets lineup of Harden, Paul, Trevor Ariza, Mbah a Moute, and PJ Tucker has worked throughout the year and would absolutely force the Warriors to keep James Looney off the floor. At the end of the day, the Rockets will need to hit threes in order to beat the Warriors for four games. The Rockets built on analytics and will need those analytics to come through this series.
On the other side of the floor are the Golden State Warriors, who shot the three before it was cool. The Rockets are touted for using analytics to know to shoot more threes in order to try to outscore the opponent, but the Warriors have the splash brothers. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are the greatest three point shooting backcourt in the history of the NBA. On top of that, they added Kevin Durant who is one of the top two players in the league when he pins his ears back and takes over. After adding Durant they have amassed a 24-3 playoff record. The Rockets will need to beat them more times in seven games than the Warriors have lost in the last twenty-seven playoff games. I would venture to say that the odds are not in the Rockets favor. Yes, the Rockets would have game seven at home, but the Durant Warriors have never even faced a game six, much less a game seven. The Warriors have been starting recent games with their death lineup, known this year as the “Hamptons Five”. This small ball lineup features Andre Iguodala in for James Looney which slides Draymond Green to the center and allows the Warriors to switch on everything. This is not only a very powerful offensive group, but is also very potent defensively. Thompson, Iguodala, Green, and Durant can defend all five people in a small ball lineup leaving the only weak spot with Curry. The Rockets will surely try to take advantage of this by switching Curry onto Harden and then trying the iso game that they have been so good at. Curry will have to stand up to Harden and trust the much improved help defense of Durant and Green if Harden drives past him. I believe that Curry is an underrated defender but can not stand up to Harden one-on-one. If this happens to be the case and Harden begins to heat up, the Warriors will start to trap Harden high off of screens and force someone else to try to beat him. The speed of the Warriors’ death lineup allows for this to happen easily. If the Rockets have everything clicking then this will be the toughest series that the Warriors have faced since adding Durant, but if the Warriors have everything clicking then there is not any team currently constructed that can stand up to them.
The Rockets put up their 50-5 record with Jame Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela up against the Warriors 24-3 playoff record with Kevin Durant with only one prevailing. I believe that this series will really test the mettle of both teams and if I were a betting man I would put my money on the team that’s been there before and has proven up to this point an inability to be solved. I believe that the Rockets will push the Warriors to their first game 6 with Durant on the team, but that it will end there. The Warriors will win this series 4-2 and head on to try to win their third title in four years. Better luck next year trying to defeat the Golden State Warriors.