West Finals Preview: Dynasty-Seeking Warriors Face Toughest Test Yet in Rockets?

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As the Warriors set about winning their 11th straight playoff series against a Western Conference opponent, NBA cameras picked up a jokey back-and-forth between Steve Kerr and Alvin Gentry, his former assistant. Kerr, whose arrival in 2014-15 sparked Golden State’s run of conference dominance, vigorously shook hands with Gentry, now coaching the Pelicans. “We got to do that thing for the camera so that we can say, ‘Oh they’re such great friends,’” Kerr said, before delivering his punchline. “I hope we kill you guys. That’s what I really hope.”

They might smile and laugh as they kill you, but the Warriors will still kill you. Indeed, Golden State proceeded to finish off New Orleans in five games to advance to the Western Conference finals for the fourth straight year. Under Kerr, Golden State is 44-10 against the rest of West in the playoffs, needing a Game 6 just twice and a Game 7 just once.

While they peaked with a perfect 12-0 run through the West last year, the Warriors’ seeming invincibility has had dramatic repercussions off the court too. Just look at how many perennial playoff teams have crumbled in their wake.

The Grizzlies, tough enough to push the Warriors in 2015, spent the entire 2017-18 season in the tank. The Spurs, once the Warriors’ model for sustainable success, are reeling from Kawhi Leonard drama. The Clippers, the last team to beat the Warriors in the playoffs back in 2014, are deep into a teardown. And the Thunder, the only West team to take Kerr’s Warriors to seven games, had Kevin Durant swiped out from under them … by the Warriors.

Amidst all that carnage, the Rockets are the only thing preventing Kerr and company from becoming the first team since the Showtime Lakers (1982-85) to win the West four years in a row. Houston GM Daryl Morey has spent years methodically constructing a roster suited to match up with Golden State, and his efforts have produced, on paper, the reigning champs’ toughest test yet.

Indeed, the Rockets have won more games (65), compiled a better point differential (+8.5) and posted a higher offensive rating (112.2) than every Warriors playoff opponent over the last four years, including LeBron James and the Cavaliers. Houston has multiple Hall of Famers, record-setting shooting, elite playmaking, versatile defense, the ability to play big and small and a veteran rotation that has played with consistency and cohesion all season.

The Western Conference finals, then, will determine whether that long list of desirable qualities is enough to interrupt a budding dynasty driven by four Hall of Famers.

Most Intriguing Storyline: Does James Harden Finally Have Enough Help?

Houston enters this series with skepticism of two kinds. First, can anyone beat the Warriors now that Stephen Curry is back healthy? Second, are the Rockets ready to shed their recent playoff history, which includes losses to the Warriors in 2015 and 2016, and shock the world?

Both are fair questions. During the regular season, the Warriors and Rockets posted nearly identical offensive efficiency numbers, ranking one-two, respectively. To overcome Golden State’s talent advantage, though, Houston will need James Harden to turn in the series of his life. Harden, the likely 2018 MVP, is 3-10 in the regular season and 2-8 in the playoffs against the Warriors since 2014-15. While Harden has posted strong individual numbers (27.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 7 APG) against Golden State in the playoffs, he’s often struggled with turnovers (4.9 per game) and late-game decision-making.

The Warriors have a talented corps of Harden-stoppers, including a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Draymond Green protecting the basket and multiple quality perimeter defenders, including Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala. In the past, that’s been enough for Golden State to limit Harden’s effectiveness and throw off Houston’s attack. However, there’s hope for Harden and these Rockets for at least three reasons.

First, Harden is a better, smarter and more complete player than he was in 2016, the last time he faced Golden State in the playoffs. Second, he’s now supported by Chris Paul, an elite secondary playmaker who has picked up the slack during Harden’s off nights and added a badly-needed mid-range element to Houston’s attack. Third, Morey’s acquisitions of P.J. Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute allow Houston to play five shooters at the same time without making crippling concessions defensively. Those super-small lineups give Harden much more space to operate one-on-one than he had even last year, and he’s capitalized with eye-popping, high-efficiency isolation play all season long.

Biggest X-Factor: Clint Capela

Clint Capela has been getting all sorts of attention heading into this series, but only some of it is for the right reasons. Back in January, the Rockets center said Houston was “better” than Golden State, a comment that drew a quick clap-back from Durant (“his job is not that hard”) and some dismissive guffaws from Green this week.

Forget about the stale bulletin board material. Capela has been an absolute stud during the playoffs, neutralizing Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns in the first round and outplaying Utah’s Rudy Gobert in the second round. He’s posting impressive individual numbers (14.4 PPG, 12.2 RPG, 2.8 BPG), leading the playoffs in blocks, finishing lob after lob and showing off the full range of his versatility on defense. A long-armed paint-protector, Capela has also covered ground on the perimeter and held his own on switches. As a result, he’s been featured in Houston’s three most-used lineups in the playoffs, all of which have easily outscored the opposition.

For the Rockets to pull the upset, Capela will need to be able to survive against the Warriors’ smaller lineups, including the so-called “Hamptons 5” (Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Durant, Green). Houston’s smaller looks are loaded with shooting but can’t match Golden State’s frontcourt length and don’t offer much in the way of rim-protection. If Capela finds himself in foul trouble or if he struggles to keep up defensively as Golden State whips the ball around the perimeter, the Rockets will be forced to make more strategic compromises than they would prefer.

Match-up to Watch: Stephen Curry vs. His Knee

Curry has run the emotional gamut against Houston in the playoffs: from pouring in 40 points and seven three-pointers in a Game 3 blowout in 2015 to suffering a playoff-altering knee sprain in Game 2 of 2016. The two-time MVP returned to the court after another knee sprain on May 1, looking sensational in his debut against the Pelicans (28 points off the bench) and winded (19 points on 19 shots) in his second game. By the end of the second round, Curry seemed to find his legs and avoided any major setbacks.

Given the range of possibilities facing Curry when he first suffered the injury back in March, his current status represents something close to the best-case scenario. Houston has improved its ability to defend Curry by adding Paul and a host of switchable defenders, but no one has been able to solve the Curry/Durant pairing when the two superstars have shared the court together. If Curry maintains good health and cleans up some of his sloppy play from the second round, Houston’s margin for error will shrink considerably.

Random Stat: +54 in 54 Minutes

The most interesting strategic questions in this series concern Golden State’s Hamptons Five lineup (Curry, Thompson, Iguodala, Durant and Green). In last year’s Finals, the Hamptons Five smoked the Cavaliers 92-66 in 33 minutes. So far during the 2018 playoffs, the star-studded group was a whopping +54 in 54 minutes against the Pelicans. That’s right, the Hamptons Five blasted a 48-win team that swept through the first round by a full point per minute. Bonkers.

Kerr has been prudent in turning to his best group over the last two seasons, partially to save wear-and-tear on Green and Durant and partially to mask their full potency until it’s needed. The Hamptons Five didn’t play a single minute together in three regular-season games against the Rockets, and Kerr finally started the group for the first time ever during the New Orleans series. Golden State, therefore, enters the series with both a talent advantage and a real element of surprise.

The Warriors’ smaller lineup will help shape how many minute Capela can play and whether Nene and Ryan Anderson are able to provide anything off the bench for the Rockets. If they get rolling and stay rolling, Houston coach Mike D’Antoni will likely need to turn to his own smaller lineups featuring Tucker and/or Mbah a Moute in place of more traditional bigs. If the series goes small early and stays small, the point totals, pace of play and entertainment value should all skyrocket.

The Pick: Warriors in 6

Houston has played well enough consistently, throughout both the regular season and playoffs, that writing it off as the “Same old Rockets” would be disrespectful. Still, there are no obvious cracks in Golden State’s armor. Durant represents a match-up nightmare for Houston, Green is playing lights-out on defense, Curry is back in the fold and healthy, Thompson is as steady as ever and Iguodala has cranked up his play in the postseason.

Since Durant’s arrival in 2016-17, the Warriors are 24-3 in the playoffs. A series loss here, despite the Rockets’ many improvements, would qualify as one of the most stunning upsets in the NBA over the past decade. It’s exceedingly hard to pick against the Warriors given that no team has succeeded in pushing them past Game 5. 

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