It’s here, the NBA Finals! …or.. the Western Conference Finals!
The anticipation, speculation, and pondering can all be put to rest as the two best teams in the league, who have been on a collision course from the start, will finally meet.
Also, as we all hoped for, both teams are deploying their entire roster free of any injuries other than the typical wear and tear on all players’ bodies at this point of the season.
A full slate of health and both teams clicking on almost all cylinders should make for the series we have all been waiting for, which is one of the best series in NBA history.
He is what all has caught my attention, what I will be looking for, and my predictions.
What all has caught my attention?
The regular season series between the two went as seen above, with Houston winning the series 2-1.
Many will say that the regular season series “does not matter” because the stakes are raised when it matters most, there are back-to-back’s teams come off of, injuries and experimental rotations are implemented, and a multitude of other reasons are thrown out which hold great merit in my opinion.
However, what cannot be denied is that there is a feeling out process between the two teams in the regular season. Coaches deploy subtleties to gain an idea of how their opponents will counteract, players pick up on the sets their counterparts are running, and match-ups are tested to see who can/can’t play or who can/can’t guard other players.
Many take-a-ways come from those regular season meetings, and in three rather electrifying contests this season, there is no question that D’Antoni and Kerr, along with their coaching staffs, have stashed away plenty of tactical side notes that will all be put in to action now.
Quick Line-Up Standouts
For the last few games of their series against the Pelicans, the Warriors decided to deploy their “Hampton 5” line-up of Curry-Thompson-Iguodala-Durant-Green has logged around 13.5 minutes per game, and no team has had an answer for this. Can the Rockets combat? They have a line-up that was not deployed until the latter third of the season (after the all-star break) where the Rockets have Paul-Harden-Ariza-Mbah A Moute-Tucker (or Gordon plugged in for Ariza in the same line-up) on the floor known as the “Tuckwagon”. Look for these line-ups to be on the court against each other plenty in this chess match.
Floor spacing is a luxury a team cannot have enough of in this NBA, and this is a match up of two teams who do this the best. The Warriors have two of the best shooters (off the dribble or catch and shoot) in NBA history, and one of the best scorers in NBA history. While the Rockets have average to elite shooters 3-point shooters sprinkled throughout their roster. For the Rockets, Ryan Anderson (a pioneer of the stretch 4 evolution) has not played much in this playoffs. He is averaging 11.2 mpg and has only played in 6 of the teams 10 contests so far. His involvement, in attracting attention to at least have the defense hesitate in decision whether to help off to stunt a drive or to stay home because of his shooting prowess can be vital. How much he can play in this series is something I will be looking for, as for as much of a viable option he can be on offense, he can be just as equally a liability defensively. Feast or famine.
What will I be looking forward to?
In this heavyweight match-up there will be plenty of schemes, tactics, and game plans tested, which will then lead to countless adjustments from both teams. In the end, it’s going to come down to who takes advantage of the opportunities that are presented. Can the Rockets take advantage of Golden State’s turnover’s? Will Golden State capitalize off of Houston’s long misses? Opportunities that come up like these will be the tell-tell story from game to game.
Both teams are up tempo, but are more than capable of playing at a slower pace as well. This series will fluctuate in pace from game to game, but expect for the series to be played at a high octane 112-122 point pace range.
Durant vs Mbah a Moute/Ariza, Green vs PJ Tucker, can Golden State match-up with Capela, bench vs bench, and the aforementioned “Hampton 5” vs the “Tuckwagon.”
Also, will Golden State continue to start their “Hampton 5” line-up or will they revert to a more traditional line-up to begin the series?
Chris Paul vs Steph Curry
Mentor vs Mentee. Point God vs the best shooter of all-time. The best prototypical point guard vs the best score first point guard.
This makes for, in my opinion, the most entertaining point guard match-up in the league.
The contrast in styles, the level of competition, and narrative behind the relationship all make it the best point guard match-up for me.
This series is one that will incorporate many cross-matches due to the ever switching defensive schemes each team deploys, but I expect for these two to take the match-up personally at some point, and get after it.
For Paul, he has been known to laser focus in on trying to take a specific player out of the game impact wise for stretches of a game (vs Curry in 2014, vs Parker in 2015 and 2008, vs Westbrook in 2014).
He has been successful in this with these match-ups as well. But in the past, he could not exert this much energy for a full 48 minutes because he was so heavily depended upon offensively. This year though, he can do so with the most complete and viable roster around him and not have to worry about suffering offensively as a result.
Durant vs Harden
Undoubtedly the leagues two best scorers and most impactful scorers, they will not necessarily match-up intentionally (but will as a result of switches), but it will be a game within the game where these two will be looking to out produce the other.
For Durant, there is far less pressure scoring wise due to the fact that he has three other all-stars and two of the best shooters of all-time that can fill it up at any point.
But for Harden, he will likely need to be the leading scorer in each game from both sides for the Rockets. This will be a big indicator in whether or not the Rockets are at peak performance.
Physical play. I feel that this series will get chippy, and rather quickly. There has been much back and forth between these two teams both on the court and through the season. Chris Paul has prior bad blood and disdain for the Warriors stemming back from the series against the Warriors in 2014, one that saw Paul’s Clippers win the series in 7 (also the last time the Warriors lost a series vs a western conference opponent). There is no love lost between Chris and the core players of this Warriors team.
Kick ahead transition passes. One way the Rockets up the tempo and get themselves easy looks is via the kick ahead pass in transition. Often this comes from Harden to Paul or vice versa, but Paul and Harden also initiate this instance often times by kicking the ball ahead to their wings, specifically to Gordon, Ariza, and Mbah a Moute who are, who are effective dribble drive attackers. Via the kick ahead pass, the aforementioned wings can attack an unset defense.
Premier pick and roll play. Snake dribbles, screen splitting, screen slips… the ball screen will be active and used in abundance from both sides. Traditional big to guard ball screens as well as wing to guard and guard to guard ball screens will be implemented.
Harden finishing at the basket. For the Rockets to perform at peak level, he will need to finish a high percentage of his attacks to the basket, or at least draw fouls which we will get to next. For finishing at the basket, it’s one of the more relied upon plays for the Rockets, and weapon he has to use to add variety and score more easily from in close. At the same time, in those situations the floor is spaced and in the event that he does miss at the basket, the Warriors can change ends as quick as anyone in transition. This puts the Rockets defense at a severe disadvantage especially agains the defending champions.
Free throws. As mentioned above, free throws will be vital in a series like this one. Putting points on the board easily, and also doing so with the clock stopped and allowing for your defense to be set cant have a value placed upon it. Harden, who has turned earning his way to the line into a craft, will spearhead this attack. This will be a weapon much needed throughout this series. The Warriors on the other hand have two players that will do their own damage from the charity stripe in Durant and Curry.
Clint Capela. The Rockets x factor and biggest match-up problem is in Clint. As he goes, the team goes. In the two games the team has lost in the playoffs, his impact was not felt or miniscule. He will need to take it up another level as he has done from round one to round two. This will also be his “easiest” match up due to the fact that he was against two all world centers the last two rounds in Karl Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert. The Rockets will need him to be a top 5 player in the series to win.
Attacking weaknesses. Both teams, at times, will look to find a match-up that they can exploit and act accordingly upon finding that opportunity. Runs will come plentifully.
Composure. Both teams have players that are rather expressive in their disagreement with calls, in interacting with the opposition, and in showing their emotions during games especially of the high stakes variety. Finding a way to bottle in that emotion and deploying it only in a team-beneficial way will be vital. Every point will count, and petty technical fouls or flagrant’s will work adverse to both teams aspirations.
Ball movement. The deeper into the playoffs we get, the more one on one play teams rely upon. It is just out of the natural flow of the game. Teams go to their best players and put the onus on them to lead them to where they want to be. However, the Warriors still find a way to mix in enough ball movement to keep defenses honest and remain more unpredictable. The Rockets, known most for their isolation play with Harden and Paul (the two most efficient in this setting this season), ran more sets and used more ball/player movement against the Warriors in the regular season. This will be key as the Warriors defense is far too stout to attack one on one every play, and the same goes for the Warriors with the Rockets defense. This will be key.
Timely stops. Lastly, whichever team can get those timely stops to go on a run late or increase a lead will win this series. This will be a cyclically revisited scenario that both coaches will preach to their teams. Getting out in transition will be an asset, as whoever can earn more of these opportunities will dictate the pace. It is also nearly impossible to stop either of these offenses as they are two of the best in league history, but whichever can put together the most of these, will win.
Luc Mbah a Moute
For what it’s worth, these are the stats for Durant when matched up with Mbah a Moute. Moute is a player of similar lateral quickness defensively and stature (minus the height). Moute’s strength, discipline, and defensive savvy allow for him to be one of the best in attempting to stifle the all-time great scorer not named Kawhi Leonard. If Mbah a Moute is healthy enough, expect for these two to match-up plenty, as Moute will be the other x factor for the Rockets next to Capela.
The Houston Rockets will win this series in 7 games.
A highly competitive series will come down to a few key possessions in crunch time and the Rockets will be able to take care of business, squeaking by the Warriors. I feel that the combination of hunger, desire, IQ between Paul and Harden, and the home court advantage garnered by the Rockets will make for the perfect storm for Golden State. The Rockets pose as the biggest threat to the Warriors in their Durant era, and could very well be the strongest constructed roster that they have matched up with since they’ve began their dynastic run of prominence over the league. The Warriors are a juggernaut, but so are the Rockets. In a series that the Rockets have salivated and longed for since their rosters construction, they have exactly what they were asking for. Let’s see if they handle their business.
As always, if you enjoyed the read, have any suggestions, or would like to continue conversations, feel free to contact me on Twitter @StayTrueSdot3. All interaction or dialogue is accepted and much appreciated.
All stats mentioned come directly from http://www.basketball-reference.com, http://www.stats.nba.com, or http://www.nbamath.com unless otherwise attributed.