It has been a dream season for the Rockets. Splash offseason acquisition Chris Paul majorly panned out exactly as they had hoped, Harden looks to be a sure lock for MVP after too many years of spiteful snubs, and with the timely emergence of Clint Capela, they ripped the first seed in the West right out of the reigning champions injury-riddled hands. And after making swift work of the Timberpups and Jazz, they get the opportunity go toe-to-toe with the perennial sovereigns Golden State Warriors.
Despite being the first seed, the Rockets come into this as sort of an unwitting underdog, confident and bold only because they sit unaware of what they’re in for. While they soared to the first seed, gutting the league en route to enjoying the greatest season in Rockets history and most importantly, went a convincing 2-1 against the Warriors, for most of the season the Warriors generously took the foot off the gas due to injuries and lessons learned. These playoffs have been the first look at the unbridled supremacy of the Warriors this season that we often take for granted.
Really these playoffs have been a return to status quo for the Warriors, which is unprecedented dominance in every facet of the game. They currently lead the playoffs with 110 points per game, 28.8 assists per game, a 99.3 defensive rating, and have multiple 120 point games this postseason. The return of Steph Curry silenced the spunky Pelicans to the tune of 24.1 points on 44.1% three-point shooting and combined with Kevin Durant’s unstoppable 28.0 points per game proves the Warriors as dangerous as ever.
And for the first and only time these playoffs, the league got a glimpse of the vicious Death Lineup. While Kerr has held back in letting the dog off the chain for the majority of the playoffs, the Pelicans endured a brutal eighteen minutes against it, seeing the lineup go +26(!) with a terrifying 130.1 offensive rating and an absurd 66.5 defensive rating. Going into a series against a team they naturally will not be able to steamroll, the Rockets will have their hands full if Kerr implements this lineup as much as we expect.
Hope, however, cannot be lost this easily though for Houston. They still flaunt the most efficient offensive product in the game in James Harden, who averages a smooth 28.5 points on 48.5 percent true shooting and a resurgent Chris Paul, who averages 21.8 points and 6.4 assists and in the midst of the most successful postseason of his entire career. As a whole, they lead the playoffs in offensive rating, are second in defensive rating, and drain a lethal 14.1 threes a night.
Obviously, this series will be a clash of the Titans and a near lock for a seven-game war but if the Rockets want to pull this off, everything falls on the shoulders of the role players. Going into a series against the Mariana trench deep Warriors, secondary stars Clint Capela and Eric Gordon must have the series of their lives.
While Clint Capela has stepped up big time (more on that later), Gordon has, to a degree, fallen off a cliff. After another strong campaign, parading in his sixth man of the year hangover and furthering three-point prowess, his playoffs really haven’t been up to snuff. He dropped his points per game total from 18.0 to 13.8. His shooting percentages dropped considerably, both in total (42.8 percent to 34.9 percent) and his golden goose three-point shot (35.9 percent to 32.3 percent).
Head coach Mike D’Antoni staggers his minutes with expectations of the secondary scorer to Paul or Harden and after thriving in a spot-up shooting and pick-and-roll role in the regular season, he has hit a dicey slump at the worst time. The Rockets will need his offensive contributions if they want to keep up with a Warriors team currently firing on all cylinders Luckily, Capela elevated his game for these playoffs.
He has hit a career-high 15.4 points per game and has been pivotal in mismatches against defenses. Paul and Harden’s great shooting forces opposing centers to make a choice between focusing on the backcourt or Capela with his willingness to stay in the paint. If they choose to defend the spot-up shot, Capela nestles in wide-open in the paint. Ignore the shot, and they are asking for a 40 point game from either Harden and Paul. Neither Rudy Gobert nor Karl Anthony-Towns had the quickness to defend this attack and it has largely been successful up to this point.
Against the Warriors, however, these shots simply won’t be available. Boasting Draymond Green, armed with the versatility to guard both the perimeter or the paint, to handle these mismatches, the easy layups and lobs aren’t going to come as easy. Even when Green sits, Durant, Kevin Looney or Jordan Bell are all handy for the small-ball five role, exposing Capela’s greatest weakness-his inability to create his own shot. He had a combined 52 attempts in the post-up and isolation game in the regular season, limiting his offensive potential.
Because of the Warriors’ unmatched versatility on the defensive end, the Rockets’ elite set crew could be completely negated. There is no team deeper in the league and the conjoined efforts of only Harden and Paul honestly won’t be enough. In the case Kerr wields the Death Lineup, the Rockets may not have an answer on either end. In order to escape to their first Finals since 1995, Gordon and Capela will have to heighten their play, have to avoid their weakness, and they have to form a Big Four with Harden and Paul to combat the Warriors. If not, buckle up for Cavs-Warriors Part IV everybody.
In D’Antoni we trust.