Headed into their hotly anticipated matchup, both the Rockets and Warriors clearly wanted to impose their will on their opponent from the opening tip. Steve Kerr stopped being cute and has started his Hamptons Five lineup from Game 1, a unit comprised of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. That group had an absurd 40.9 net rating together as this series started.
The Rockets, meanwhile, wanted to play the purest version of D’Antoni ball, so they started James Harden, Chris Paul, Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela. Capela had an immense impact on Houston’s offense during the first two rounds of the postseason, while Ariza and Tucker give Harden and Paul shooting outlets. Through three games of the west finals, with the Warriors winning two blowouts compared to the Rockets’ one, it may be time for Houston to consider leaning more heavily on its second-most used lineup, the Tuckwagon.
(Let’s start here: the Rockets don’t really have any great options, especially if Curry is going to go off like he did in Game 3. There’s no answer in the NBA for Durant, and when the Warriors are locked in on both ends of the court, playing sound defense and not making careless turnovers, they won’t be beat.)
In 31 minutes on the court together, Houston’s starting five has a minus-14.4 net rating in this series. Most of that time is spent playing against the Warriors’ starting five, and the Rockets’ starting group was run off the court in the first two games of the series. Here’s where things get a little interesting. In 56 minutes together in the conference finals, the Warriors’ starting lineup has a net rating of 3.3—which is obviously still good, but the damage of that lineup has been somewhat mitigated.
Enter the Tuckwagon group, which subs Eric Gordon for Capela and shifts Tucker to center, which has a minus-1.5 net rating in 18 minutes in this series. That negative is certainly not ideal, but the boom or bust proposition of that unit may be worth the gamble for Mike D’Antoni to give it more playing time.
You could argue the Tuckwagon (a nickname coined by Houston Chronicle reporter Jonathan Feigen) has been the bellwether for the Rockets in this series. That group played 10 minutes together in Houston’s only win in the conference finals, and posted a preposterous 30.2 net rating during that game. In shorter stints in Games 1 and 3, that lineup struggled, although D’Antoni could have probably afforded to play the group for a longer stretch in Game 3. The Tuckwagon played only five minutes in Sunday’s loss, and it possibly could have broken through offensively with a longer leash.
D’Antoni has famously been rigid throughout his career and this season, but if there’s an adjustment on the board, it’s playing more small minutes with his best five. It’s not an easy fix for Houston, which isn’t playing a backup center at this point, creating some logistical hurdles for D’antoni’s rotations. And the Tucker-at-center group certainly isn’t perfect. It was largely successful in Game 2 because of Tucker’s explosion from three. But if Harden and Paul can consistently penetrate off the dribble, which they’ve done with some success against Golden State, the Rockets will have open looks from the outside, and they’ll have to trust their shooters to knock them down.
Again, Houston doesn’t have outstanding options in this matchup. D’Antoni will have to dance with who he brought to the party, and Capela has been his third best player for much of the playoffs. You could also argue that playing small works in favor of the Warriors, who pretty much perfected if not invented the modern style of postseason basketball. But if there’s ever a time for Houston to take a big swing, it’s now, with its season practically hanging in the balance.
Play more Tuckwagon. Let P.J. Tucker shoot 15 corner threes. Let the shots fall where they may. Golden State is a juggernaut, the Rockets likely can’t win this series in the way they won their previous two. Going small against the Warriors far from guarantees success. But it may be time for Houston to be desperate enough to take the risk.