Gone is the warm fuzzy glow that accompanied the Warriors in the early part of the season. Back in those days (the grind of the regular season has meant they are fast fading from the memory), their better-than-expected play catapulted them comfortably into the playoff places and earned them a lot of column inches as early season surprises. But somewhere along the line, probably about the time the Rockets delivered a historic beatdown on them in the two teams’ first meeting, the story began to fall off the rails. Unable to keep up the improved defensive effort they started the season with, the team has collapsed from 30-17 to 37-30 and now has to keep one eye on the battle for the 8th seed behind them.
The Rockets have been struggling for consistency in recent weeks, with excellent wins sandwiching disappointing losses. The dichotomy between the two halves of Friday’s tilt with the Timberwolves illustrates that frustrating inconsistency best – you would be hard-pressed to find a worse half of basketball from them this season than the first half, but the potency of their attack in the second was an exhibition of how deadly they can be when everything clicks. A win here leapfrogs Houston over Golden State in the race for the 6th spot, a particularly coveted piece of standings real-estate given the way the tiers of power in the upper echelons of the conference break down. Given that, the entertaining mini-feud they had with the Warriors earlier in the year and a desire to make hay while the sun shines during the current seven game homestand, there should be no problem for the team getting the motivation together for tonight’s game.
McHale has been rolling with the same starting five since inserting Motiejunas into the starting lineup against Milwaukee, and at this point injuries seem like the only thing that will change that for the rest of the season. But while the Lin/Harden/Parsons/D-Mo/Asik combo on the floor for the opening tip will be familiar, he has been tinkering with the bench rotation somewhat. In the past he has said that he prefers a rotation of 9 players, but the addition of Francisco Garcia to the squad has seen him make an exception to that rule. On Friday night, McHale for the first time I can remember this season started the second quarter with no starters on the court. We saw nearly 5 minutes of Beverley/Garcia/Delfino/Robinson/Smith, and they went +1 over that span with Delfino and Robinson doing most of the damage. The success of the bench mob depends quite heavily on whether Delfino has his shooting stroke – without it they are sadly lacking in offensive firepower. But if that group can forge a chemistry together it could prove quite useful down the stretch run. It will also allow McHale to evaluate who is deserving of minutes when the playoffs come around.
Golden State’s fall from grace seems to have coincided with Bogut’s return to the lineup. Before it happened, outside observers assumed that he could just slot in to the rotation taking over minutes from Festus Ezeli, but it hasn’t turned out that way – he’s not looked great offensively and hasn’t been able to recapture the defensive dominance that was a hallmark of his days in Milwaukee. He’ll start alongside Curry, Thompson, Barnes and Lee, a lineup bursting with offense but lacking in defensive tenacity. Off the bench, Coach Jackson can call on the services of 6th-man of the Year candidate Jarrett Jack, our old friend Carl Landry, grizzled veteran Richard Jefferson, the aforementioned Festus Ezeli and rookie Draymond Green.
I would be remiss not to share an anecdote regarding their Latvian centre Andris Biedrins. The Warriors are one of the few teams in the league I’ve seen live, and when I did there was a fan behind me who shouted “No! Not to him! He’s so bad!” every time the ball was passed to Andris Biedrins. That’s pretty much him in a nutshell – he has a well-known phobia of free throws and it seems that has wrecked what was at one stage a promising career as he is now completely devoid of any offensive threat. As the season has gone on Jackson has shown less and less faith in him to the extent that he only saw three minutes of garbage time on Friday against the Bulls.
The second half against the Timberwolves was the archetypal Rockets offense. The team feasted off the havoc caused by repeated drives from Harden and Lin, reaping layups, free-throws, and three pointers off kick outs. This is an attack that Golden State are particularly susceptible to. First of all, they do not have a reliable perimeter defender who can keep opposing guards and wings in front of him (although I seem to recall Harrison Barnes playing some pretty good defense on Harden in one of the teams’ previous meetings. Secondly, their favoured defensive strategy seems to be to collapse quite heavily on penetration, perhaps because David Lee is not particularly good at bothering opposing guards if left to his own devices (or so says [url=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0HX0Ezb-OPE]Kirk Goldsberry[/url], anyway). That means if the driving guards are capable of getting the ball back out to the perimeter in a timely manner, as both Lin and Harden can, then there should be plenty of wide-open three pointers available. The Warriors also rank near the bottom of the league (24th) in free-throws allowed per field-goal attempt, so all signs point to a team that should be driven to death by the Rockets’ starting back-court.
The ability to stretch the floor should also be used liberally in this game. Another thing the the Warriors don’t really have is someone suited to guarding stretch-4s – both David Lee and Carl Landry are both more suited to hanging around in the paint. That should mean Motiejunas will be able to get open on the three point line a fair amount.
As I mentioned previously, Andrew Bogut has not looked himself this season on the defensive end. He’s been unable to shut down the paint in the manner to which we were accustomed to seeing him in Milwaukee, and a lot of that is to do with mobility. Perhaps it’s the lingering effects of his surgery or the effects that had on his fitness, but he doesn’t have the speed to be able to zip around the paint and challenge opposing players in a timely manner like he used to do. It might be worth using Asik in the pick-and-roll a bit to try to drag him out of position.
Golden State’s starting backcourt of Curry and Thompson is one of the most potent shooting tandems in the NBA. Curry requires constant attention and is very much a pick-your-poison type player. He’s very capable of barrages like his [url=http://espn.go.com/nba/boxscore?gameId=400278573]Madison Square Garden explosion[/url] a few weeks ago, but he’s also good at passing out of the double team so it’s difficult to get the ball out of his hands. In the past some teams have tried aggressively doubling him in the pick and roll, but he does a good job of dropping back, sometimes retreating all the way to half court, and dragging the two defenders with him. When he finally passes out of the trap, the Warriors end up with a 4-on-3 situation and tend to make opponents pay. He’s also got pretty decent handles and underrated court vision, so Lin will have his hands full tonight.
The Warriors’ bench features two players in Jack and Landry who can make life hell for opposing defenses. Landry has one of the more refined post games in the league and will likely give Thomas Robinson’s raw defense a stiff examination. Jack is an excellent spark-plug off the bench and does a great job of setting up his team-mates, but he has been struggling of late – his assist numbers are down from 5.4 to just 2.7 in his last 10 games, and he’s only shooting 35.9% from the floor. Given the inexperienced and offense-light bench mob the Rockets are running with, this will come as a relief to McHale and co., but Beverley will still need to be his aggressive and vigilant self to keep him in that slump.
The Rockets match up really well with the Warriors, and should be able to exploit the flaws in their defensive schemes. They’ll need to do their best to limit Curry and the other Warriors shooters, but provided they can do that and avoid the opposing bench from lighting up the Rockets’ backups, they should be able to come away with a win.