3 Keys to Houston/Golden State: The Resilient Rockets Are Ready for a Rematch

2018 Western Conference Finals

Game 7. Win or go home. After a 17-pt Warriors comeback in Game 6, the CP3-less Rockets had homecourt advantage for the deciding contest. With a 15-pt lead in the 2nd quarter, Houston could taste it. 27 more minutes, and they’d be heading to the NBA Finals, upsetting the superteam and facing a Cavs team with an awful supporting cast. The whole NBA world watched, eyes glued to the TV.

And we all knew the Warriors run was coming. They’d been doing it all season, and especially throughout the playoffs. When the third quarter came around, everyone knew the run was imminent.

And sure enough, the run came. Golden State came through with a 33-point third quarter, and Houston only scored 15. The Rockets went 0-14 from three in the quarter, and that cold spell would continue, and go down in history as the infamous 27 straight missed threes. Houston kept fighting, but they’d finish the game 7-44 from deep, 15.9%, as the Warriors won the game 101-92 and advanced to the Finals.

2018 Offseason

Oh, what could’ve been. If Chris Paul hadn’t torn his hamstring in Game 5. If the Rockets hadn’t missed 27 straight threes. 

But in the summer of 2018, things weren’t looking good for the Rockets. Trevor Ariza shockingly left for the Suns, Luc Mbah a Moute was heading to Los Angeles, and the Warriors landed another All-Star in DeMarcus Cousins. Those roster changes coupled with Paul’s injury led many to believe the Rocket’s championship window was closing, or even gone. Check out some of these pieces:

The Ringer: Are We Sure That the Rockets’ Championship Window Hasn’t Already Closed?

Sports Illustrated: Has the Rockets’ championship window already closed?

ESPN: Pierce: Rockets’ championship window ‘is closed’

The Big Lead: Chris Paul Hamstring Injury Officially Closes Rockets Championship Window

Especially after their slow start to the 2018-19 season, lots of fans and media members gave up on Houston.

But Houston didn’t give up. Even through more injury, Chris Paul didn’t give up. With an increased load, James Harden didn’t give up. And Daryl Morey didn’t give up. He found players off the scrap heap, players the NBA had given up on.

Austin Rivers has played his entire career with a reputation. His dad traded for him, his dad gave him playing time, and right when his dad was demoted, Austin was shipped out of town. After hitting rock-bottom, also known as “being waived by the Suns”, Rivers was rescued by Daryl Morey… and it turned out pretty well. In Rivers’ 47 games in Houston, he’s become a key role player, averaging 28.6 minutes, 6th most on the team.

Kenneth Faried only appeared in 12 games for the Nets before agreeing to a buyout in January. Since signing with the Rockets, he’s averaged 24.4 minutes, 12.9 points, and 8.8 rebounds, shooting 61% from two and 35% from three. He’s been Houston’s most reliable big off the bench, filling into the Capela roll position with incredible efficiency.

Even Danuel House was on a two-way contract until the Rockets signed him on March 12th. Now he’s the Rockets’ sixth man, averaging 23.8 minutes in the playoffs thus far.

The 2018-19 Rockets: New and… Improved?

With these acquisitions, the Rockets supporting cast is arguably better than it was last season. The impact of Ariza and Mbah a Moute has been widely overrated since last playoffs. Mbah a Moute was struggling with a shoulder injury, and only played four games. But neither of them shot well in the series, Mbah a Moute finished 2 of 15 from the field, 13%… and Ariza shot 7 for 35 from three, 20%. Replacing that with Danuel House, Kenneth Faried, and Austin Rivers should be a big upgrade.

And that’s not to mention the improvement of PJ Tucker and Clint Capela. Tucker has been one of the league’s best corner three shooters, and his defensive switchability is huge for the Rockets’ defense. Capela is stronger with the ball, he’s been able to play make out of the short roll, and he’s become a stellar perimeter defender for a 7-foot center.

Oh, and by the way, James Harden. Harden was actually pretty cold from deep throughout the WCF last year, finishing the series 19 for 78, 24.4%. And this season, his isolation play has been on another level. Harden doesn’t really even need a screen anymore, taking his defender off the dribble to get a step back or get to the line almost every possession.

The 2018-19 Warriors: Primed for an Upset?

It’s been a really weird season for the Warriors, to say the least. I think it’s fair to say Kevin Durant’s free agency has been looming over the team all season, and he’s been eerily quiet and sensitive about it. Durant and Draymond Green got into it at Staples Center in November, when Green didn’t give Durant the ball at the end of a close game. Draymond brought up Durant’s impending decision, and feelings were definitely. That incident showed us that KD’s free agency is certainly taking a toll on team chemistry.

But the problems aren’t just off the court. The Warriors’ 57 wins this season is their lowest since 2013-14. Mark Jackson was the coach at the time, Draymond Green was coming off the bench behind David Lee, a bench that also featured Jermaine O’Neal, Kent Bazemore, and Steve Blake. That was a long time ago! This regular season was the rockiest of this entire Warriors’ run.

Of course, talent often wins out in the playoffs. And the Warriors are more talented. But there are still concerns. Golden State’s bench is weaker than ever. 34-year old Andrew Bogut has started the last two games and that center spot of real concern. Jordan Bell has been essentially buried, playing a total of 13 minutes in the four games. Bogut and Kevon Looney are the only real centers in the rotation. Looney’s been playing well, 15 for 19 from the field in the four games, but against Houston’s spaced-out offense, it’s tough to see him on the floor. Also in the rotation are Shaun Livingston, Alfonzo McKinnie, and Quinn Cook. All three are between 10 and 12 mins per game. Andre Iguodala will probably be playing crunch time, but he and Livingston have both shown considerable signs of aging since their first championship in 2015.

With these factors in mind, many would argue that compared to last season, the Rockets are better and the Warriors are worse. And last season’s Rockets should’ve beaten last season’s Warriors… doesn’t that mean Houston should be respected, if not favored as contenders to knock off Golden State?

Let’s break down the deciding factors that will swing this series.

Key #1… Role Player Shooting

The 27 missed threes will be remembered as the legacy of the 2018 WCF, and fairly so. But Houston was cold from three that entire series… and they still should have won. In the series, the Rockets shot 31.4% from three, compared to 36.2% that regular season. As I mentioned, Trevor Ariza alone was 20% from deep. Mbah a Moute was 20% too. For the Warriors, Nick Young shot 40%, and Quinn Cook 42.9%. If Danuel House can just shoot 30-35% in the Ariza role, Houston should be better off than last year.

One of the main reasons I made this a key for the series is its importance in both teams’ systems. The Rockets rely on spacing and isolation. With poor shooters around them, defenses can collapse on Harden and Paul in isolation or pick and roll. Similarly, when Clint Capela rolls, he has done a great job of finding Tucker, Gordon, and others in the corners. The Warriors will have to pick their poison, and the Rockets’ offense is tough to stop when everyone’s hitting.

In the Warriors/Clippers series, we saw LA implement an interesting strategy which I like to call “defending 3 with 5”. Essentially, they choose to focus their five defenders on Steph, Klay, and KD by totally sagging off of the other two Warriors, including Draymond Green. Draymond has been struggling from outside all season, only making 28.5%. That’s the worst percentage he’s posted since he starting shooting 1+ per game. He’s been subsequently hesitant to shoot, only attempting 2.5 a game, down from 3.7 last year. But it’s not just Draymond. Andre Iguodala shot 33.3% from deep this season, (below league average) and Kevon Looney, Andrew Bogut, and Shaun Livingston don’t shoot threes at all. Now you’re relying on Alfonzo McKinnie and Quinn Cook?? It will be interesting to see how much Houston sags off Draymond and other role players, which can make things way more difficult for the three stars, especially Kevin Durant when there are two extra defenders waiting to double or triple-team him on drives.

Key #2… Isolation Hunting

In these two Harden-Paul-D’Antoni seasons, Houston’s offensive system has been unique, for many reasons. They shoot a historic quantity of three-pointers, basically ignore the mid-range, focusing on shots at the rim or behind the three-point line. “Trey it up or lay it up”, as Daryl Morey’s analytics-influenced style has been called. 77.4% of James Harden’s shot attempts come from three or within 3 feet. And Houston shoots 43.5 threes per game, the highest in the NBA… and the 2nd highest is 35.3 (Utah).

But Houston executes this style with a ridiculous amount of isolation. Especially this season, with injuries to Paul and Capela, the Rockets have embraced a one-on-one style of basketball centered around James Harden. This season, only 16.1% of Harden’s threes and only 10.5% of his twos have been assisted. That’s absolutely berserk. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen before. And CP3 doesn’t have the volume of Harden, but 25.2% of his threes and 5.7% of his twos have been assisted.

A staple of this Houston offense is hunting mismatches. They’ve essentially eliminated players like Rudy Gobert and Kyle Korver, who are too slow to defend Paul and Harden in the pick and roll. You can’t play drop defense when they’re hitting threes, and you can’t switch, because the Rockets will space the floor and let Harden or Paul embarrass you on-one-one. Especially considering the Warriors’ weakness at center, I’m really interested to see if Houston can expose some of those guys. I would bet Andrew Bogut can hardly play in this series, and Kevon Looney has some agility, but can’t switch onto Harden. Even Steph Curry may be hunted a little, we’ll see.

Key #3…Playoff Harden

So there’s a little bit of overlap here with Keys #2 and #3, but I say “Playoff Harden” because I’m specifically interested in Harden’s past playoff woes. As I mentioned, he shot 24.4% from three in last year’s WCF. Over the whole 2017-18 playoffs, in 17 games, Harden shot 29.9% from three. In the ’16-’17 playoffs? 27.8%. In fact, every playoffs where he’s attempted 9+ threes per game, Harden’s percentage is under 30%.

Since being traded to Houston, here are his shooting numbers:

RegSzn: 28.2 pts, 5.8 rebs, 7.5 ast, 44.3% FG,, 36.4% 3P
Playoffs: 26.2 pts, 5.2 reb 6.8 ast, 40.9% FG, 31.9% 3P

That’s somewhat alarming, and it should scare Rockets fans, at least a little. Of course, this James Harden is a level above the Harden of the past, but I’m still not 100% sure he’s the same guy in the playoffs. In my opinion, the “choker” narrative isn’t quite fair, but there is something to be said for his less efficient play.

And of course, everything runs through Harden offensively. Only Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan have scored more points in a season, and Harden’s usage rate this year is the second-highest in NBA history, behind 2016-17 Russell Westbrook. It should go without saying, but Houston will be relying on Harden to engineer their offense, as they have been all season. Whether or not he’s a “choker” in the playoffs, he’ll need to shoot over 30% from deep, which he hasn’t been able to do in the playoffs.

Prediction

Ever since Kevin Durant signed with Golden State, I’ve been in the “believe it when I see it” club concerning an upset. With that level of talent, I thought it would be very hard for the Warriors to go down. Last year’s Western Conference Finals changed my view a bit. The Rockets should’ve won… they probably would’ve if it weren’t for that historic cold streak. Coming into this series, it’s definitely possible. I do believe Houston’s better, but I’m not sure the Warriors are really worse. Also, Golden State will have homecourt advantage this year, which could be the difference, especially if the series goes to seven.

In the end, I’ll pick the Warriors in six or seven games. But it’s not a no-brainer like most Warriors series are. The Rockets are built for this, and they have a real shot at pulling it off. I can’t wait to see what goes down.

I grew up in a small town in Indiana, about an hour outside of Chicago. I’ve been a diehard Chicago sports fan my entire life, and basketball has always been my favorite sport. In high school, I founded a Sports Media Club, where my classmates and I wrote articles and produced podcasts. After graduating, I kept writing and podcasting on my own. Now I’m a freshman at Purdue University, and I am excited to join Lineups and continue to further the growth of the content side of the site.

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