NBA Playoffs 2018: The Complete Western Conference Finals Preview
It's here! The matchup all NBA enthusiasts around the world wanted. This year's Western Conference Final between the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors is the matchup we have been dreaming about all year. The Rockets pose the biggest threat to the Kevin Durant Warriors that we have seen yet. Houston became a juggernaut this season with the addition of Chris Paul and MVP play from James Harden.
They added versatile and tough defenders like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and P.J Tucker, specifically for the Warriors. Golden State, after a lackluster regular season by their standards, looks like themselves again. Curry is healthy, and Kerr is not messing around and starting the death lineup. The result has been the destruction of the Spurs and the Pelicans in five games each. On Monday, it's go time, and here are the matchups, lineups, and X-factors you should be looking for.
The Warriors death lineup in the playoffs has destroyed everything in their sight. Curry and Thompson are unconscious, Durant obliterates any defender on him, and Green's passing has been lethal. Even Iggy has stepped it up after a down regular season. In 54 minutes in the playoffs, the death lineup has a +40 net rating. That is absurd and proof that it is the most unguardable lineup in basketball. It always has been, now the Warriors are just starting it and playing it even more minutes. They are not messing around.
So how do the Rockets try to counter this? Well, their starting lineup is Harden, Paul, Tucker, Trevor Ariza and Clint Capela. I assume they will at least start this group for Game 1. Their starters have been +18 in 153 minutes in the playoffs. They have been good, but not on the Warriors level. Although I would argue that the Wolves and the Jazz are better than the Spurs and Pelicans, for the Rockets to win the battle of starters, Capela has to be a monster. He is honestly the key to the series.
Capela is one of the best roll men in basketball, and Green is one of the best pick and roll defenders. Green is undersized, but he is strong and understands positioning. It was hard to take a lot from these teams regular season battles as there was always at least one-star player hurt, but Capela had some success against the Warriors. A lot of his offensive success came against the Warriors traditional centers like Zaza and McGee, who likely won't play much this series, but he can also cause Green some problems. Watch this play!
Capela is a savvy screener who has developed excellent chemistry with Harden. Capela is particularly good at slipping screens. Harden commands a lot of attention, so slipping screens is a good way for Capela to catch the ball deep in the paint. Even though he misses the first one, he is able to get the rebound and put it in over the smaller Green. Green is a fantastic defender, but he can't handle Capela this close to the rim.
Now the Warriors play Kevin Looney behind Green and sometimes David West at center. The Rockets should look to match Capela's minutes with Looney a lot. Capela will obviously start, but the Rockets have secretly been working on their death lineup counter. The move is moving P.J Tucker to center. Ariza, Harden, Paul and Eric Gordon surround Tucker. In a small sample size in the playoffs, it has a +11 net rating in 12 minutes. Expect it to get more time in this series.
Tucker will be on Green, with Paul guarding Curry. Ariza will handle Durant, Gordon will try to survive on Thompson and Harden will hide on Iggy. This five doesn't have a lot of experience together which is concerning, but it's worth an extended look. This lineup creates ridiculous spacing and switch ability. It can get guaranteed looks from three for Ariza and Tucker (who by the way will have to hit at least six threes between them per game, for the Rockets to win). Watch this clip!
This lineup creates ridiculous spacing, especially against traditional bigs. All it takes is a simple ball screen for Paul from Tucker. Tucker pops out to the three-point line as Gobert goes to help on the Paul penetration. Paul whips it to Tucker for the wide-open three. Utah didn't guard Tucker, and the Warriors won't really either. He needs to make them pay from deep. Houston can get open looks for him all day in this lineup.
A couple of other lineups to keep an eye on. So far in the playoffs the Warriors have let Durant play with the bench (Livingston, West, Looney, and Cook). That lineup has done well, but don't expect to see it much in this round. The Warriors will want at least two of the big four on the court at all times, to maximize firepower. That first group can replace Livingston with Curry easily. The Rockets on the other hand like to stagger Paul and Harden a lot. This series they may be together a little more as well. Their max offensive lineup is Paul, Harden, Gordon, Ariza, and Capela. This lineup will score, but the key is Gordon. How well he holds his own on defense is one of the keys to the series, and if he cannot, he better be raining threes.
Things to Watch!
Free Throws! How tight the refs call this series will be huge. No, the series won't come down to officiating, but the Rockets live at the free throw line, and in the playoffs, it can be tougher to get some calls. Houston is 1st in free throw rate, but the Warriors do a pretty good job of keeping teams off the line ranking tenth in the league. This is particularly key for James Harden. He is already getting to the line less in the postseason, about two fewer attempts per game, which is a little concerning since he is not shooting that well either right now. In two regular-season matchups against the Warriors, Harden only attempted six free throws.
That number will need to go up. In an ideal world, those fouls will go against Draymond Green. Green is a tough man to get in foul trouble, but if you do you can swing a game. Houston needs to get to the line often to win this series.
Golden State is all about the threes. The best three-point shooting team in the league. Houston is good at defending the three, ranking sixth in the league, but there is no room for error in this series. They will have to live with some Green and Iggy threes (how well those two shoot is always an X-factor in a Warrior series), but the Rockets can't let the Splash Brothers and Durant go bonkers.
Golden State gets a lot of there threes in transition. With cross matches, range, and quick releases they create havoc. They were the fourth best transition offense in the league, and the Rockets were first. Houston was also sixth in transition defense, and the Warriors were ninth. This is strength on strength battle. The Rockets are great at leaking out and advancing the ball via the pass. Watch this play.
Draymond's alley-oop to Livingston fails. Capela gets the rebound, gives it to Harden and he is immediately looking up. He throws the ball up ahead to Tucker, who quickly leaked out and it’s an easy layup for the Rockets. Houston prefers it slow, but you still need to get back because in transition they are lethal and quick.
The Warriors, on the other hand, can kill in even just semi-transition scenarios. Their shooters cause defenses to scramble, and they pass up good shots for great shots. You can't blink. Watch this play!
Draymond pushes the ball and collapses the defense by getting into the paint. He kicks it out to Curry who is behind the three-point line, and then Curry drives. Curry gets in the paint but loses the ball and then gets it back. Once he gets it back he kicks it back out to Draymond who passes on a wide open three to wait for Curry to get back behind the three-point line, so he can rifle a pass to Curry who drills a three. Just a nightmare to cover, and their patience to get a great shot is unbelievable.
An advantage the Warriors have in this series is their ability to finish at the rim, and the Rockets struggle to protect it. Golden State is the 2nd best team in the league in finishing at the rim, and the Rockets are 20th in rim defense. Especially with Capela out. That is the concern of the Tucker at center lineup. Curry is a crafty driver, and Durant gets to the rim easily. Going all out to protect the three point line will lead to some hard closeouts, and that will lead to driving opportunities for the Warriors.
This is another reason Capela is the key to the series. When he is in, he has to be a factor protecting the rim without fouling. Houston does a great job of not fouling, but if they do they are in some trouble since all the Warriors are automatic from the line. Don't forget about Nene either, he may not get a lot of minutes, but he needs to hold his own on defense when he is in.
Individual Matchups to Watch
-Draymond Green getting switched on to CP3 and Harden. Paul will need to unleash midrange fire on Green. He can get that shot when he wants and in this series he will need to be more of a scorer like he was in game five against Utah. Harden can't settle too much for his famous step-back three, expect him to pull out the floater/ runner a little more in this series.
-Ariza, Tucker and Mbah a Moute will all get a run at a Durant. Mbah Moute is the best option. He has the foot speed, length, and anticipation to at least make Durant work. If the Warriors isolate Durant, the Rockets will have to trust any of these three and not send help and live with the results. Durant is even more dangerous in pick and rolls and as a spot-up threat. Mbah a Moute will need to play big minutes this series and if the situation calls for it be put into the starting line-up.
-Paul is one of the few point guards who can at least hang with Curry. Keep an eye on how the Rockets play Warrior pick and rolls, especially with Capela. Trapping or coming out high can lead to dangerous Green four on threes. Capela likely won't extend himself past the three-point line, so he can guard the roller, while still being in a position to contest a pull-up jumper. Paul will need to fight over screens to stay attached as best as possible.
-Harden on defense will start on Iggy but expect to see him on West or Looney at times as well. He has the strength to hang, and the Rockets will live with David West post-ups.
-Expect the Warriors to counter with some Iggy pick and rolls early, to try to get Harden to mess up.
-Klay Thompson should have a big series. He is red hot right now and should have an advantage in this series. He is too strong for Gordon and too quick for Ariza and Tucker. Harden or Gerald Green has no chance on him. Look for the Warriors to get him going early.
-Gerald Green will have trouble surviving in this series; there is no safe spot for him on defense in the bench units. His minutes will likely go down, but when he plays, he needs to hit some threes.
-Thompson will take the bulk of minutes guarding Harden; Harden needs to average 30 in this series for the Rockets to win.
X-Factors/Final Thoughts and a Prediction!
-Threes from the role players. Green, Ariza, Mbah Moute, Gordon, and Tucker all will get open looks at times; they need to hit around their season averages if not more to hang.
-For the Warriors, Green and Iggy will have to do the same
-Kevin Looney will be put through the gauntlet, can he survive?
-Pace! The Rockets are usually slow and like to isolate, but when they do run they are lethal. Expect them to slow it down more. For that to work, Paul and Harden need to win in their isolations. Harden's step back three is the shot to watch. If he makes a couple, that opens up everything, but if he misses the offense could go stagnant.
-Curry off the ball with Iggy or Green as the point guard is terrifying. Can Paul keep up with him off the ball?
-Both teams are good on defense, but this will still be a track meet. Expect some games in the 110-115 range. As good as the team defenses are, the offensive firepower is too much in this series.
-Turnovers! The one Warrior weakness on offense, not that it affects their overall production. They are 24th in turnovers, and the Rockets are about average in forcing them. When the Rockets do, they need to capitalize. On the other end, the Rockets can't afford games with more than ten to twelve turnovers
-Houston needs to win game one to win the series. The pressure/momentum otherwise is all on the Warriors side.
-Warriors in six. Four stars to two is simple, but a big deal. Durant is the key. His ability to hit tough shots against good defenders can bail the Warriors out of bad possessions. There will be times the Rockets play perfect defense, and it won't be enough. Golden State is overall slightly better on both ends. This is the real NBA Finals, enjoy everybody!