Playoff Preview: HOU vs. GSW

On Sunday the Houston Rockets face off versus the Golden State Warriors in what can only be properly called the “Run It Back” matchup. With some slight, but significant, differences the teams are very much the same as last year.

Golden State has knocked Houston out of the playoffs all three times they have faced each other over the last couple of years in pretty heartbreaking fashion.

So how can the Rockets get over the gold and royal blue jerseys? It starts with defense.

Much has been said about the defensive adjustments the Rockets made after the all-star break. They continued this trend in the playoffs versus the Jazz as they forced Donovan Mitchell to just 32.1% from the field. In fact, in the series clinching game on Wednesday, the Rockets forced Donovan Mitchell to a -0.52 Winning Percentage Added (WPA).

Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker were magnificent throughout the series. Not only did Eric Gordon shoot 61.9% True Shooting but he absolutely hounded Donovan Mitchell throughout the series. However, James Harden provided the series clinching defensive move on Rudy Gobert.

While detrimental to the narrative of NBA Twitter, James Harden actually had the second best defensive rating of the entire series at 97. He also had 2.2 steals and 1.4 blocks per game, both good for second best on the team.

The Warriors had an interesting matchup themselves versus the Clippers and it took a historic fifty from Kevin Durant to push them into the second round. Yet, they are still as good as ever as even with good defense they can still punish opposing teams by drawing up fabulous plays.

Here Kevin Durant is doubled on the perimeter and he passes it to a wide open Andre Iguadola who is left. Even though the Clippers defenders are in good position, Kevin Looney is able to (illegally, probably) screen Steph Curry into a wide open and-1. The Rockets defenders are going to need to fight through these tough moving screens in order to prevail against the quick trigger Warriors.

For good reason, the death lineup that the Warriors are able to bring out is one of the scariest in NBA history. However, the Clippers showed ways in which they were able to take advantage of whatever weaknesses the lineup might have.

Lou Williams is able to get into the lane here, and because there is no true center he can lay if off the glass with some ease. The same goes for Lou Williams again, who is able to pass it to a wide open big man running the lane with no true center to stop it.

The Rockets can exquisitely take advantage of this by punishing this line-up with floaters.

Notice here how James Harden is able to make the first move into the lane and draw Rudy Gobert into a contest. Rudy Gobert is a tall, talented center and although Harden missed this one in particular he should have more success with less lengthy defenders in the lane. Personally, what is so fabulous about this play is James Harden’s extra flair he adds to this drive. The slight fake to Clint Capela drew Donovan Mitchell in enough to where James Harden himself was in perfect position for the offensive rebound. There was shades of this last year during the Western Conference Finals as well even without a floater.

In this writer’s opinion, the x factor in this series is Chris Paul. While he shot decently well overall in the series versus the Jazz his three point shooting needs to be better versus Golden State. It was shots like this that made last year’s Western Conference Finals one of the best.

In the end, the Houston Rockets have to take advantage of whatever matchups they can and hope that Golden State doesn’t have enough to counter. Great teams like Golden State do not fall easy but they do, they fall hard.

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Houston Rockets 100, Utah Jazz 93: Finally Over

After watching the Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers take care of business, I certainly hoped that the Rockets could do the same thing in their Game 5. But the Utah Jazz are not the Nets or Magic, and I think this series (along with OKC’s utter failure) truly showed that they are the third best team in the Western Conference.

But they went up against the second (and hopefully first) best team. Utah managed to bring the game closer to their own terms than the Rockets, and turned much of this game into a defensive rockfight than a scoring fest. But the Rockets are no defensive slouches themselves either, and made the right plays on that end down the stretch to seal the victory.

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Utah Jazz 107, Houston Rockets 91: Human behavior

Through the first 3 games of this 1st round playoff matchup, the Rockets had seemed to have had the Jazz’s number. Utah, despite possessing the NBA’s second-best defensive rating during the regular season, adopted the Milwaukee Bucks’s method of guarding James Harden. This scheme of “shading Harden’s left”, thereby funneling him into the paint and removing his lethal step-back three while having him meet Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert at the rim, is a more grotesque version of the defense the San Antonio Spurs employed in the 2017 NBA playoffs against the Rockets. The scheme in that series largely worked, tiring out the All-Star shooting guard as he struggled mightily to connect on his drives, resulting in his infamous Game 6 implosion.

Harden has since learned much from the events that transpired during that playoff series. He has added more tools to his game, most notably the stepback three-pointer and floater, for which he has connected on 50% this season. Harden, having to shoulder an incredible burden in running Houston’s offense, must always adapt his game to stay ahead of the NBA’s top defenses; arguably no other player in the NBA is more obsessively schemed against than the Beard.

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