My colleagues at this site, and astutely so, recently declared that these Houston Rockets are for real. As in -holding up a trophy in June- for real. As in – James Harden could be a Finals MVP – for real. You know what, this is entirely possible. So let’s not beat around the bush any longer. Sure, the West has some teams spazzing out right now. Portland and New Orleans are straight hooping and let’s not forget that OKC still has three hall-of-famers on their squad. Oh, and Kawhi is rumored to be coming back this month, according to Woj. But, it almost feels as though Houston and Golden State are destined to meet each other in the Western Conference Finals.
What will it take for Houston to beat the Defending Champs?
- The Eye Test
Tell me that someone NOT names James Harden has been the best player in the Association this year, and I’ll show you a popular meme of an angry Patrick Star. Lebron James averaged a triple double in February. The Brow has carried New Orleans to a massive win streak despite losing Boogie Cousins. Steph is putting up another 50/40/90 season and Russ is almost averaging a triple double again. Despite this historic season of individual player output, James Harden has been the best player in the League.
Every game, every team knows what Houston is going to do. They are going to run a high PnR while three shooters space the court, and let James Harden pick you apart. There are only three outcomes here. Harden-to-rim, Harden-stepback, or Harden-finds-shooter/roller. Still, not one team has managed to stop the beard. The closest we saw (homer alert) was Marcus Smart defending Harden during a 1 point Rocket loss. Even though it was an inefficient night, the future MVP still dropped 34 and was 15-15 from the stripe.
Bottom line, Houston usually staggers CP3 and Harden’s minutes. They always have a top 10 player on the court. Oh, and one of them is a savant at finding points by any means possible. The task is simple. Stopping Harden will result in a W. Problem is, no one has been able to do it yet this year.
- The Numbers
Variance. From podcasts to analytic forums, to Instagram videos to blog posts, NBA heads keep talking about variance. Rockets GM Daryl Morey has been open about this subject, often reiterating that Houston had to raise its capacity to put out that “freakish” game. You know, the game where Houston hits 24 threes and wins by 17. So, let’s get into these numbers.
Houston hits 15.5 threes per game, as compared to Golden State’s 12 per game clip. Yet, The Warriors make 31 twos per game while Houston only makes 23 per game. Throw in a comparable free throw rate and what are we left with? By taking a higher amount of threes per game, Houston has the better percentage chance of having “freak” game. Yet, The Warriors can combat this by making more twos, especially ones close to the rim (which they are known for.) To summarize, even if Houston has a high variance game, Golden State is incredibly well-equipped to withstand that barrage of three pointers.
Because I am a nerd, I went through every game each of these teams has played this season, and recorded how many times they scored 120+. I recorded their W/L records for all of these contests. When Houston puts up 120+, they are 17-0. Yet, when Golden State drops 120+, they are 28-1. Houston is known for these gaudy scoring nights but, the Warriors are the more explosive offensive team. When the Rockets hang 126 on the Dubs, rest assure that the Warriors have the ability to be right there with them.
Mika Honkasolo wrote an awesome article analyzing playoff expectations and myths. The article addressed two key elements regarding a Hou/GS playoff series: Playoff Pace and Assist Percentage. Would the Rockets benefit from a faster pace; a pace that allows for Houston to bomb more threes? I think so. Does the game slow down in the playoffs? Not as much as you think. According to Honkasolo, teams play only “four percent slower” in the playoffs and that number has been reduced in recent years. Teams may be learning how to continue their fast pace of play in the postseason, something that Houston will benefit from.
Yet, Honkasolo also found that one major indicator of playoff performance is assist percentage. Teams with a higher assist percentage often outperform teams with lower assist percentages. This does not bode well for Houston. The Dubs “Team Assists for FG Made” is tops in the League while Houston comes in at 22.
This is funny because when we think of Houston, we think of two guards who get 17 assists per game between the two of them. Yet, the Rockets only get 22 dishes per contest while the Warriors hand out 30.5 dimes a game.
III. The Outcome?
Last year, San Antonio looked like they would challenge the Dubs. Then Zaza ruined everything for Kawhi Leonard. I give Houston just as good of a chance at beating the Warriors as the Spurs would have had if Kawhi never went down. But, Houston will have to have some things go their way.
Firstly, they have to not fall trap to the slowed-down pace of NBA postseason hoops. Golden State will game plan and play more intensely than ever, so this is a tough task. Yet, gunslingers like E. Gordon and Harden are up to the challenge.
Secondly, Houston has to find a way to share the ball more. They play a good amount of ISO & Spacing ball. Harden will try and take someone off the dribble and hit a shooter in the corner; not exactly the model for ball movement. Fortunately, Houston has a Point God on their team. Perhaps D’Antoni switches his game plan just a bit and allows CP3 to open his game up a little.
Regardless, this is going to be an entertaining series. Let’s pray these two teams meet in the playoffs.
As always, share your thoughts and let us know if Houston really has a chance!