If there is any one team, at the NBA’s nominal halfway point, that has the heretofore unassailable Golden State Warriors looking over their collective shoulders it is not the Cleveland LeBrons. It is not the surging Toronto Raptors and it is most certainly not the suddenly struggling Boston Celtics. The only team that should have the Warriors at least considering their current effort level is the Houston Rockets.
Now to be clear this is not about fear-mongering the Warriors; they have their issues but they are also the prism through which the entire association is viewed. Instead, this is about Houston’s conundrum and how to prove to the NBA, and themselves, that they can be the David to the Warriors’ Goliath.
For the Rockets to make any real noise in the playoffs the first thing they have to do is be honest with themselves about what they are and what they aren’t. They can’t try to play hero ball against the warriors and get away from what works for them. This seems easy enough as a team headed Mike D’antoni always emphasizes three-point attempts and looks at the rim. As a result, two-point attempts they do score on make up a smaller percentage of Houston’s overall offense, at 41%, than any other. They also hit their 2s at the second highest rate behind Golden State, but their two-point attempt assist rate sags far behind the Warriors.
The dubs assist on 65.6% (!!!) of their two-pointers, literally 10 points ahead of the nearest team, meaning they are rarely shooting contested off the dribble twos. The Rockets on the other hand average fewer than half of their twos coming from an assist with just around one-third of their threes are unassisted as well. This is a double-edged sword as those tough takes can bail out an offense facing playoff defenses, but the Warriors would much rather Houston chase those unassisted shots.
While shot selection will be paramount for the Rockets to defeat the Western Conference version of the evil empire, the defense is equally important. By the end of last season, the Rockets finished middle of the pack in terms of defensive rating (106.4), about half a point from the bottom third of the association. This season, the Rockets have improved greatly and currently sit ninth (104.6), a little less than a full point behind the fifth-ranked Warriors. That is a significant improvement for a team (and coach) that has not cared for defense in recent years.
Coupled with their second-ranked defensive rebounding percentage (81.4%) the Rockets should be able to punish Golden State on the glass as the Dubs give up more second-chance points than any other team. That would be an incredible advantage that could save the Rockets should they fall into the first trap of settling for contested jumpers anywhere on the floor.
Ultimately though for the Rockets to secure a playoff series victory over the Warriors, they will have to clear the mental hurdle. The elephant in the room that cannot be ushered out until they finally scale Mount Doom and retrieve their ring from the fire. Houston will have to deal with the expectation that at the very moment where victory is in their grasp, all of their leading men have failed. The examples are numerous; last postseason James Harden infamously no-showed against the Kawhi-less Spurs, Chris Paul’s playoff flops with lob-city, and D’antoni making only two conference finals. It is fair to add caveats here and there for injuries, missed calls, and roster over-achievements, but in the end, they must shelve their discrepancies to meet this challenge.
The Warriors won’t care if Chris Paul is hurt, James Harden is tired, or D’antoni’s roster is “missing a piece”. Houston’s fans know this as well and it lends itself to great trepidation in terms of believing their team will win. Yet if they’re going to do it they will need to seize every moment, use every advantage, ignore every distraction and commit in a way they did not previously know was possible.