Warriors-Rockets Preview

If you asked the question, how efficient can efficiency get?  Then this series would be your answer.

Has there ever been a series like this?  All the threes, all the weird, crazy offensive strategies these teams employ?  All the points?

The answer is no.  We’ve never seen two offensive giants like this collide before.  We’re looking at three top 35 players of all-time in this series and the 11th best offense ever (The Rockets, per Offensive Rating).

So what’s gonna give?  Will the Warriors lukewarm effort give Houston an edge?  Can we trust the Rockets defensively?  What about James Harden and Chris Paul being really good at melting down in the playoffs?

What certainly won’t give: Points.

Western Conference Final: Golden State Warriors vs. Houston Rockets

This series could be as simple as who goes cold when the other team shoots well.  The Warriors and Rockets have both had their poor shooting nights this postseason, with Golden State actually having more bad than good nights from beyond the arc.  In nights that are considered bad (In my opinion, 35% from three or less), the Warriors have managed to go 5-2.  Out of the 10 games the Warriors have played in this postseason, they’ve shot well in only three of them.  They’re still 8-2 in the postseason despite that.  That’s pretty dang good.

Houston has shot well in 50% of their games this postseason, and went 4-1 in games where they didn’t shoot well from behind the three point line.  That’s also pretty encouraging.

But it’s not all about threes for the Warriors.  Sure, injuries and effort probably contributed to it, but Golden State only took the 6th most threes in the league this year.  The Rockets took around 10 more a game than Golden State did.

That’s because Golden State is capable of playing multiple styles.  Their ridiculous versatility, athleticism and speed allow them to run cuts, move the ball and slow it down if need be.  Golden State blowing out New Orleans and San Antonio by locking down defensively and letting Kevin Durant takeover was only one dimension of this team.  They’ve held onto dimensions all season, and have probably hid some.

The Rockets have only a couple ways of playing.  Heavy isolation by whomever and swinging it around the arc to the next guy if the other can’t shake-and-bake his defender, or the classic James Harden-Clint Capela pick-and-roll.  Those are essentially the offensive sets the Rockets have.

The Warriors should be able to contain it to an extent.  If it’s a low effort night, or a poor shooting outing, Houston will be able to put points up.  But at their full potential, the Warriors have enough to slow down Houston.  They’re more skilled defensively than any team the Rockets have played.  Klay Thompson isn’t stopping Harden, but he can make him work, and force even more choke-jobs.  The Warriors can hide Stephen Curry on Chris Paul or Eric Gordon.  Paul’s scoring outbursts recently make that a little tedious given that Curry isn’t the most supreme defender, but Houston’s slow pace could actually benefit Curry, who isn’t the greatest athlete on that end of the court.  Plus, Curry has owned CP3 over the years in playoff series.

Durant is a juggernaut defensively in this series.  The Warriors can put him off the ball, taking out someone like Trevor Ariza, assign him to Harden, which could go either way matchup wise, or even play him at some center to help defend Capela on the PNR.

The Rockets don’t have a LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard.  They don’t have a go-to wing guy that KD will be tasked with stopping.  That could be a blessing for Golden State.  KD’s learned to make his defensive impact felt anywhere.  This will be the perfect series to showcase that.

Despite Golden State’s defensive excellence, it may not be enough.  The Rockets are the best at making those “I can’t believe he just took and/or made that shot” shots.  Their range and volume of threes has taken the whole league by storm.  It’s essentially the Warriors from 2014-2016 on steroids.

And the problem for the Warriors is that those shots go in 35.3% of the time.  But if anyone knows that they have to defend Houston three feet out from the arc, it’s Golden State.

The way games will be won in this series will be based on who shoots poorly in one game and who shoots well in that same game.  It could really be that simple.

But there are gonna be nights where both shoot well, or both shoot poorly.  Then what happens?

Houston’s whole offense is based off that three point shot.  The other set they have is the Harden-Capela PNR.  With Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green in the rotating cast of guys tasked to defend that, good luck Houston.  The shots better go in.

I’m also dubious of Houston defensively.  They did finish 6th in defensive rating and rank 2nd for the playoffs.  Adding PJ Tucker, Chris Paul and Luc Mbah a Moute did what it was supposed to.

But where is Houston hiding Harden?  What about CP3’s horrible history defending Curry?  Are the wings enough to contain KD, who’s been ridiculous all postseason?

The answer is partially.  Houston has to keep switching on KD.  Trevor Ariza (Who did well on Donavan Mitchell in the 2nd round), Mbah a Moute and Tucker are all pretty viable options.  Switching every possession like Boston did against LeBron in Game 1 yesterday could work to slow Durant down.

That would defer offense to the Splash Brothers, who should be able to feast on CP3 and Harden.  Harden’s defense hasn’t improved despite his team’s improvement.  Donavan Mitchell torched him all of last round.  And the CP3 resume on Curry is problematic.  If KD is limited, those two should be able to run the show.

The Warriors five out system will also limit Clint Capela’s defensive value.  As athletic and smooth as he is, he’s not able to guard the Draymond Green-type, a sneaky quick athletic power forward who can put the ball on the deck.  Capela handled Karl-Anthony Towns in the first round, but him and Draymond are two different players.

The Rockets should switch Capela onto open shooters, that way his long arms can help close-out, rather than have him defend Draymond on the corner or the wing.  Green’s athleticism will get him by Capela, or force a pass to an open shooter as Green draws help.

The Rockets’ 6th ranked defense won’t look like it against this Warriors team.  The ball movement and superior talent of the Warriors will prevail.  On the other end, the Rockets might make a ton of threes.  Harden will more likely than not get by Thompson and go off.  It’s hard to switch against Houston, because they don’t move the ball, and for that split second when the shooter is open, he’ll take it and probably make it.

But when the shots don’t go in for Houston, there will be trouble.  It’s their only source of offense they can rely on.  Houston may play a creative style, but they don’t have creativity within it.  The Warriors are too good defensively to let that beat them.

I’m trusting Golden State to make shots when shots need to be made.  The Harden+Paul combo of playoff meltdowns and the heavy, heavy reliance on isolation and three pointers makes me worried.  Why can’t Houston just go to the rim and force Golden State to make an effort on help side?

The Rockets will have at least two games where they shoot the lights out and nothing else will matter.  But the Warriors ability to be more effective defensively, move the ball offensively and take advantage of Harden, Paul and Capela on the defensive end is the difference.  They just have more talent.  For a series that’s all about numbers, it’s really just as simple as that.

Prediction: Warriors in 6

Cavaliers-Celtics Preview

Remember when the Kyrie Irving trade went down in August?  Our first thought was “Man, the East Finals are really gonna be something.”

Somehow, after Gordon Hayward snapped his ankle five minutes into opening night, after Cleveland blew up their whole team at the trade deadline, which included shipping out the No.2 asset they received from Boston in the Kyrie trade, and after watching that same Kyrie Irving guy who we’ve already mentioned three times go down with a season-ending knee injury, we’re here.  We still got the Cavaliers and Celtics in the East Finals.  Are you sure you want to leave this conference, LeBron?

All that being said, it hasn’t been easy for LeBron James.  The Pacers took Cleveland to seven games in round one, thanks to the Cavs having no one to slow down Victor Olidipo and having no defensive effort whatsoever.  LeBron took on the ultimate workload, putting up 40 point triple doubles like it was nothing.  He hit one of the most cold-blooded game-winners I’ve ever seen against Indiana, and then somehow topped it against Toronto when he decided to take a one legged floater from the left side of the court that didn’t even hit the white square on the backboard.  Seriously, if the basketball doesn’t hit that exact spot on the glass, it tips the front of the rim and doesn’t go in.

The LeBron impact has wrecked two teams this postseason, one of which came oh-s0-close and one of which completed combusted, in the least surprising twist of the playoffs.  So can Brad Stevens and Boston be the first team to overcome it?

Eastern Conference Finals: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Boston Celtics

Boston’s biggest key coming into these playoffs was to get unexpected, large offensive contributions.  So far, that’s happened.  Terry Rozier has been phenomenal scoring the basketball.  Jayson Tatum hasn’t played like a rookie.  Jaylen Brown has hit his ceiling, and can give the Celtics five threes in a game if they need it.  Against certain matchups, Al Horford can bang down low and get easy buckets.

Nothing is preventing that from happening in this series.  The Cavaliers defense has slightly improved, but it’s still the same group that finished in the bottom five in defensive rating this season, and remains undoubtedly the worst group left in the playoffs.  The sweep of Toronto wasn’t really due to a good defensive performance out of the Cavs.  It was horrible play down the stretch by Toronto and a complete incompetence for doing anything to slow down LeBron.

We may not be able to blame Toronto for that second part though.  LeBron is at least the 3rd greatest player of all-time now.  What are you supposed to do?  Toronto’s best option was a rookie!

The argument for Boston in the series is this:  The Cavs’ defense is bad enough to allow these sporadic, unexpected offensive outputs from guys we just can’t believe are doing this a playoff series while the Celtics have dudes to throw at LeBron and possessed the best defensive rating in the league this season.  Makes sense, right?

But we’re at the point with LeBron where “having dudes to throw at him” just isn’t enough.  Nobody, nobody, is slowing that dude down right now.  The level LeBron is currently playing is 2nd to only that crazy winning streak he had in Miami.  That’s it.  LeBron is 33, in his 15th season, and is having possibly the 2nd best stretch of his career.

Good luck Boston.  Marcus Morris is certainly in for a wake-up call.   Jaylen Brown actually did quite a nice job on LeBron in very few possessions in last year’s East Finals, but LeBron wasn’t playing like this and could defer to Kyrie for offense.  Jayson Tatum has gotten better defensively throughout the year, but isn’t nearly competent enough to take LeBron every possession.

Boston has the option to go big against LeBron.  Guys like Semi Ojeyele and Guerschon Yabusele have insane athleticism for their size.  The Celtics also switched Al Hoford onto Ben Simmons in the Sixers series, which made Simmons hesitant to drive.

James isn’t going to be as reluctant as Simmons though, and can blow by Ojeyele, Yabusele and Horford.  Perhaps the constant switching can throw him off a bit; Boston should switch to get fresh legs on LeBron every possession.  LeBron and the Cavs hasn’t faced this type of depth at the wing position in these playoffs yet.

It’s still not going to matter.  You can’t stop, slow down or even somewhat limit LeBron.  There’s two guys in the league who have shown the capability to do that: Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard.  Boston doesn’t have either of them.

If B0ston wins this series, it’s going to be due to an amazing defensive display by the guys I listed above.  Jaylen Brown will have to break out as one of the league’s three best perimeter defenders.  Tatum’s gonna have to stay focused.  Marcus Morris will somehow have his words backed up.

It just feels too unlikely.  Boston will be able to match Cleveland offensively; their lineup creativity can cut, post-up and score one-on-one against the Cavs at any time.  Rozier isn’t Olidipo, but Cleveland proved in the Indiana series they have no one to contain a crafty guard who can get to the rim.

I worry about Boston in close games though; I don’t trust Rozier’s and Marcus Smart’s antics down the stretch.  With LeBron on the other side, he’ll make you pay.  You just can’t have a bad possession late.

This series is not a wash for the Celtics.  They’ll get the Jaylen Brown 25 point game, the You’re Not Stopping Jayson Tatum game, and possibly a We’re Coming Back From Down 20 game.  Their defense will make LeBron do everything, which will probably still be enough for Cleveland in the end.

Prediction: Cavaliers in 7