Here we go again.
After last season’s thrilling seven-game Western Conference finals, the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets are back for more in Round 2. A trip to the NBA Finals won’t be at stake, but don’t let that fool you — this sequel is a must-see. Here’s everything to know for Warriors-Rockets in the conference semifinals, which begin Sunday, 3:30 ET on ABC.
Round 1: Defeated LAC, 4-2
BPI odds vs. HOU: 59 percent
How they got here:
The Warriors were flat throughout Game 5 against the LA Clippers and got beat by a hungrier team, but aside from a quarter-and-a-half stretch in the second half of an epic 31-point collapse Game 2, the proud group still controlled a tough Clippers team throughout much of the series. It took six games, but the defending champs may have gotten the gut check they needed for a fifth consecutive run to the NBA Finals.
The real issue for the Warriors in their first-round win was that DeMarcus Cousins tore his left quad in Game 2 and is “unlikely” to return this postseason. They were banking on him being able to battle down on the blocks against the Rockets.
What has changed since last season?
Aside from the injured Cousins, the Warriors’ only key acquisition this season will be on full display against Houston: Andrew Bogut. The Australian center joined the team in March, and head coach Steve Kerr has praised his return every step of the way. With Boogie out, Bogut will be playing big minutes and will be counted on to provide defensive stability.
Biggest question mark: Is Golden State’s defense OK?
The Warriors’ issue is more a focus problem than a defensive one. Sure, the Clippers embarrassed them during Game 2’s historic 31-point comeback and in Game 5 when they hit up Golden State for 71 first-half points. But this has been the same old story all season for the Warriors — most nights they have it rolling and some nights they don’t. This group has built up their habits all season, but they can still turn it on when they need it the most. The Clippers, though, didn’t have a guy named James Harden.
— Nick Friedell
Round 1: Defeated UTAH, 4-1
BPI odds vs. GS: 41 percent
How they got here:
The Rockets made no apologies for winning ugly in the first round. After the Rockets rolled to routs in the first two games of the series, the Utah Jazz figured out how to execute their unique game plan against James Harden, who had his primary defender often playing behind him to prevent him from launching his lethal stepback 3-pointer and daring him to drive and challenge elite rim protectors. The Rockets scored only 100.3 points per 100 possessions in the last three games, when Harden shot only 32.3 percent from the floor. “That’s what the playoffs are all about,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “It’s not playing pretty.”
The Rockets, ranked second in the NBA in defensive efficiency after the All-Star break, were particularly proud to win on that end in the playoffs. One potential problem: The Jazz generated the most open looks in the first round, according to Second Spectrum data, but made only 26 percent of their uncontested 3-pointers. Don’t count on the Warriors missing so many wide-open looks.
What has changed since last season?
The most significant personnel change for the Rockets was the free-agency departure of Trevor Ariza, their primary defender on Durant last season. An argument can be made, however, that Ariza’s absence doesn’t hurt Houston at all. According to Second Spectrum data, Durant scored 63 points on 18-of-37 shooting in 230 possessions (113.9 team offensive rating) when defended by Ariza in last season’s playoffs.
With PJ Tucker as the primary defender in the Rockets’ three wins over the Warriors during the regular season — Durant sat out the Golden State win — KD scored 34 points on 13-of-27 shooting in 111 possessions (106.3 team offensive rating).
Biggest question mark: Is The Beard tired?
Harden’s fatigue factor is an annual postseason topic. That’s especially true after he carried a historically heavy workload this season, and his poor shooting in the final three games of the first round sure won’t hush the speculation.
But let’s give the Jazz their due, crediting an elite defensive team for excellent execution (after two terrible games) of a game plan specifically tailored to Harden. And Harden didn’t seem too tired when he made nine of his final 14 field goal attempts in the elimination game. The Rockets handling their business in five games also gave them a rest advantage heading into the second round.
— Tim MacMahon
The matchup: Curry vs. Harden
The Rockets love to isolate Harden, but when they play Golden State, it’s more accurate to say that they love to isolate him against Stephen Curry. Over the past three seasons, nobody has switched onto Harden as much as Curry, and that’s no accident.
Aside from splashing all those 3-pointers, the defining trait of the Warriors’ dynasty might be the tendency to switch defensive assignments. The Rockets try to exploit that tendency by hunting and isolating mismatches more than any other rival.
Dating back to the 2016-17 season, more than 2,800 unique NBA player duos have matched up at least 125 times. Within that sample, Harden vs. Curry produces the most extreme stats.
Lest you think we’re exaggerating, consider these four factoids, via Second Spectrum tracking:
No other matchup elicits a higher usage rate by the offensive player
Only one matchup is more likely to include a drive
Only two other matchups produce free throws at a higher rate
No other matchup yields more points for the offensive player
Out of more than 2,800.
Harden vs. Curry is the wildest analytical matchup in the NBA, especially when you consider the stakes involved. After all, these are two MVPs and scoring champs battling for Western Conference supremacy.
When you compare Harden’s key matchup numbers with other Golden State defenders, you quickly understand why Houston designs sets to target Curry:
Harden is much more aggressive and much more fruitful against Curry than against any other Warriors player. His usage rate surges to 50.3 — right around the average for an “NBA Jam” game, but a cartoonish number for any real-life environment.
With Curry on him, Harden is more than twice as likely to drive the ball to the hoop and get to the free throw line.
The other guys in that table are either strong enough or long enough to dissuade Harden’s aggression, but Curry is slight and short compared to his teammates, and he is much less able to slow Harden’s rim attacks.
While it’s tempting to interpret these data as indictments of Curry’s defense, there’s something else happening here. It just so happens that all of the other defenders in that table are world-class, and Houston’s tendency to isolate and attack Curry at freakish rates says just as much about its respect for those other dudes as it does about Curry. Isolating Curry isn’t Houston’s best choice, it’s really the Rockets’ only chance.
— Kirk Goldsberry
The 10 best players in the series
1. Stephen Curry | G | Warriors
While Durant’s scoring got more attention, the Warriors were at their best in last season’s matchup with Curry on the court, and — with ample help from now-injured DeMarcus Cousins, he led Golden State to this season’s lone head-to-head win despite Durant missing the game due to injury. Watch the ankle, though.
2. Kevin Durant | F | Warriors
Durant’s size creates matchup problems for the Rockets, who have to shuffle assignments to put P.J. Tucker on him at all times. What happens if Tucker gets in foul trouble? Buckets, surely.
3. James Harden | G | Rockets
The league’s best regular-season player over the past two seasons, Harden has struggled to maintain his scoring efficiency against the Warriors’ defense, posting a .538 true shooting percentage in the 2018 conference finals and .559 in three meetings this year as compared to his season-long .616 mark.
4. Chris Paul | G | Rockets
Paul’s hamstring strain late in Game 5 changed last season’s conference finals, and he could be a difference-maker in this season’s matchup if he stays on the court all five games.
The two wings occupy similar roles for their teams, supplying frequent 3-pointers and versatile perimeter defense. Despite Gordon offering a bit more shot creation, Thompson gets the edge as a shooter and defender.
7. PJ Tucker | F | Rockets
With Trevor Ariza gone, Tucker is Houston’s best and perhaps only good option against Durant. If he makes 48 percent of his 3s, as he did in the 2018 matchup, all the better.
8. Draymond Green | F | Warriors
The Rockets have managed to affect Green by laying off and daring him to shoot 3s. Green shot just 2-of-17 beyond the arc in last season’s conference finals, and was 0-of-8 in this season’s head-to-head series.
9. Andre Iguodala | F | Warriors
Far and away the best reserve on either side now that Gordon has become a starter, Iguodala helped the Warriors to a 2-1 lead last May before going down with left lateral leg contusion that sidelined him the rest of the series.
10. Clint Capela | C | Rockets
Capela averaged a double-double (15 points, 14.8 rebounds) against Golden State this season, logging more minutes (35.9 per game) than in last season’s series (28.5), when Mike D’Antoni was forced to go to Tucker at center at times to keep up with the Warriors’ smaller lineups.
— Kevin Pelton
0-for-27: When Clutch City became brick city for Game 7
“A hamstring away,” they say in Houston, referring to the Chris Paul injury that folks there will always believe denied the Rockets from eliminating Golden State and claiming last year’s NBA championship.
If they’re shooting straight, though, the Rockets’ record-breaking brickfest in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals must be mentioned as well.
With Paul watching from the bench, the Rockets raced out to a 15-point lead over the Warriors in the second quarter to get Toyota Center crowd roaring. Soon thereafter, the most prolific 3-point shooting team in NBA history at the time simply stopped making shots.
Clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank, clank.
Twenty-seven consecutive missed 3s, the most in a row in playoff history. That’s no way to close out an all-time great team. The Warriors walked out with a 101-92 win to punch their ticket to their fourth consecutive NBA Finals.
“We had a lot of open shots,” Rockets superstar James Harden said that night, when he was 2-of-13 from 3-point range, missing his final 11 attempts. “We just gonna keep shooting them.”
Some Rockets sources grumble that Harden should have gone to the line on a few of his misses, saying that the league office later acknowledged that the referees missed fouls on at least two. Perhaps fatigue was a factor as well, particularly considering only one Rockets reserve played more than eight minutes.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who grumbled that he “didn’t recognize” the Golden State team that spotted the Rockets the big lead in the first half, certainly thought so.
“I knew how tired Houston was,” Kerr said. “The way they play with James running so may screen and rolls. That’s exhausting, and then he’s got to go down to the other end and guard Klay [Thompson] and getting switched off onto Kevin [Durant] or Steph [Curry] — it’s tiring.
“So [Harden] had such a big burden on his shoulders, and we just wanted to maintain our defense, or get our defense going, and hope that the fatigue on their side would be a factor, and I knew our guys would make some shots.”
Trevor Ariza definitely looked tired in what ended up being his final game in a Rockets uniform. At age 32, he played 42 minutes and got outscored 34-0 by Durant, missing all 12 of his shots from the floor, including nine 3-pointers.
D’Antoni had been criticized for using a short bench after past playoff exits, in Houston and elsewhere, not that he had a ton of options with Paul and Luc Mbah a Moute (shoulder) unavailable. He’d also been ripped for relying too much on the 3-pointer, although that’s an outdated opinion in the analytics era.
The Rockets certainly haven’t responded by scaling back. Houston broke the NBA record for 3s made and attempted this season, just as they did the previous two years of D’Antoni’s tenure.
And now Houston gets another shot at Golden State.
“We keep knocking on the door,” D’Antoni said after the Game 7 loss. “It’ll eventually open.”