Playoff Preview: Golden State Warriors vs. Houston Rockets

Josh Elias | April 28th, 2019

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Last year, the Golden State Warriors needed a Chris Paul injury in order to eke out a Western Conference Finals victory against Houston in seven games. This year, they showed weakness in a first-round series for the first time in recent memory – needing six games to advance past their first-round opponent for the first time in the Steve Kerr era. Meanwhile, James Harden is heavily involved in the MVP conversation for the fourth time in the last five years after putting up historic numbers and his team finished their first-round series against Utah in a convincing five games. Yet none of that seems to matter.

It’s really a testament to how special of a team the Warriors are, and how unique of a situation they’ve created for the league in recent years, that not a single aspect of that changes the narrative in the slightest.

The Warriors

The big positive note for the Warriors is Kevin Durant‘s performances against Los Angeles in the first round. The reigning back-to-back Finals MVP was far and away the brightest spot of the series for the Warriors, averaging 35.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game. Considering his averages in last year’s series against the Rockets (29.3 points per game), he should be expected to have another incredible series in this round as well.

All year, there have been quiet murmurs about Draymond Green‘s diminishing impact on the Warriors. He’s seen every major stat except for steals (which remained steady at 1.4 per game) decline, as well as efficiency from everywhere on the floor. Despite the drop in numbers though, it should be obvious that his presence is tied heavily to the Warriors’ success, and their 9-7 record this year in games he was out (5-5 against playoff opponents) is a prime example of that. It has to be recalled that he struggled offensively against Houston last year too, averaging 8.3 points per game on shooting splits of 40.4/11.8/82.4. He made up for that by putting in extra work on the defensive boards, and he’s going to need to do that again if his poor shooting against Houston continues. In four games against the Rockets this year in the regular season, he averaged 3.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 5.3 assists – all well below average – while shooting 28.5% from the floor and not hitting a single three-pointer. That’s not a good sign.

The big change Golden State made gearing up for this season was bringing in DeMarcus Cousins for a shockingly low contract as he was recovering from the torn Achilles he suffered last year as a member of the Pelicans. While they have to be thanking their lucky stars that his deal was such that they were able to retain as many key bench players as they did, the losses of both JaVale McGee and Zaza Pachulia have to hurt now that Cousins is injured again. Andrew Bogut, at his current productivity level, should in no way, shape, or form be starting playoff games for a contending team. With Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson each also dealing with ankle sprains, expect a rocky start to the series from the Warriors that Houston will be looking to capitalize on.

As a team, there’s been one major change they’ve made in the way they’ve played compared to last year, and that has to do with offensive rebounds. While they still are average at best at them, a 15.3% increase in offensive rebounds compared to last year is nothing to scoff at. You might be tempted to think that comes down to the injured Cousins, but even that’s not true. Kevon Looney and Andrew Bogut combined for 3.5 offensive rebounds per game this year, and 3.3 per game in the first round. For a team that relies as much on shots from distance as the Warriors, adding second chances could mean everything for them in close games, particularly as they reflect on the four offensive boards they grabbed in their 98-94 Game 5 loss last year that nearly put their season in jeopardy.

Finally, this team’s success comes down to Stephen Curry. No matter Durant’s unbelievable production against the Clippers last round, that is the case and always will be the case. His 50-50-97 shooting splits against Los Angeles were ludicrous and incredible, and people have taken to referring to it as a bad series for him. That should say enough right there. How much his ankle injury bothers him and whether the foul trouble he was in against the Clippers continues are two major points to watch on his side of things.

The Rockets

What James Harden has done this season is nothing short of legendary. The fact that he’s probably not going to retain his MVP (and, based on early voting returns, will be a fairly distant second) has got to be monumentally frustrating given the fact that this was the highest-scoring season an individual not named Wilt Chamberlain or Michael Jordan has ever had, and he led his team to just one game off of the two seed in the Western Conference despite Clint Capela, Chris Paul, and Eric Gordon combining for 53 missed games. However, Harden has perennially seen both his scoring numbers and efficiency drop come playoff time his entire career, and the 37.4% that he shot from the field against Utah is a worrying sign.

While we’re on the topic of worrying signs, how about the wonky ball distribution that this team has. Being led by two of the greatest ball handlers of all time is an amazing advantage to have, but when that leads to a team’s third-highest assister contributing just 2.3 assists per game for a year, a number that has somehow managed to drop so far in the postseason. The entire team outside of Harden and Paul combined for considerably less assists than Harden and exactly as many as Paul during this last series. 11 players should not combine for just 28.3% of a team’s assists. To put that into context, the worst assist distribution rate for a title-winning team this decade was the 2015-16 Cavaliers, when 12 of their 14 players combined for 42.2% of their assists during their playoff run.

Threes and steals. Need I say more? They learned the hard way last year that if you live by the three, you die by the three. The fact that they haven’t changed their approach in response to that is quite admirable in a way, if a bit naive. So far this offseason, P.J. Tucker, Eric Gordon, and Austin Rivers have all shot over 40% from behind the arc (something only Tucker did last year), and if they can keep that up, that’s a great sign. They also forced a lot of turnovers against Utah, stealing the ball 46 times throughout the five games, and whether they can continue to force mistakes against an ever-composed Warriors team will be a key factor as well.

It might not be far, but both Harden and Paul are bashed for a supposed lack of playoff success even at this point in their careers. Even after coming just one game from the NBA Finals last year. Winning this series would make them favorites to win the championship this year and it would do wonders for both their stars’ legacies, as well as that of coach Mike D’Antoni, who notably could fall below a .500 record in the playoffs in the event of a loss to the Warriors in five games or fewer.

Prediction

Warriors in 6. It might be a closer series than people are expecting, especially with Curry and Thompson playing through pain, but it would take something shocking for the Rockets to pull this one off. Just sit back and appreciate the Warriors greatness this postseason, it might be our last chance to in their current form.

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