By Chris Horton @HortonBBallSite
Why the Houston Rockets will beat the Golden State Warriors in the 2018 NBA Playoffs.
Joel Embiid has played 63 games, LeBron James has traded 7 of his teammates, and Kendrick Perkins has signed two NBA contracts since my last article. Why the writing hiatus? Because I was busy not writing. Also, I thought I might try to fast forward the regular season to get to the fourth edition of Dubs-Cavs in the Finals. But now, after 82 regular season games, I’ve returned with breaking news: We aren’t going to see Dubs-Cavs Part IV because the Houston Rockets will beat the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.
No need to rattle off the Warriors bonafides. They are better than the Rockets. I get it. Still, Golden State won’t beat Houston in a playoff series. The Rockets play with a slow pace and offensive style that is perfect for the playoffs, plus they maximize their scoring potential by shooting a gazillion threes. This retro-futuristic formula of controlled, methodical isolation offense circa the early 2000’s coupled with an unprecedented volume of three-point attempts is exactly what Houston needs to dethrone the NBA’s reigning champs.
Let’s examine the problems Houston poses for Golden State: Running, Standing, & Shooting.
Running: Pace Of Play
“Pace and Space” has been the NBA’s trending topic for almost a decade now. Most teams are opting to use smaller, faster, more skilled athletes that can push the tempo while simultaneously using their shooting ability to force defenses to account for the entire length and width of the court. Gone are the days of plodding big man commanding in-traffic paint touches 14 seconds into the shot clock.
Former Phoenix Suns, and current Houston Rockets Head Coach, Mike D’Antoni earned his stripes as an offensive innovator and pioneer of some of the ‘pace and space’ concepts. While D’Antoni still likes to keep the floor spaced with shooters, his Steve Nash led “Seven Seconds Or Less” days are in the past. This current D’Antoni team is more like a group of your favorite R&B singers or the old dude team that dominates your local Y…they take it nice and sloooow. Houston is 14th in the NBA in Pace, playing less than 100 possessions per game. Additionally, on average, Rockets players run less (in miles) and run slower (in miles per hour) than any other team in the league per NBA Stats.
The benefit to this slow and steady approach is twofold. First, it can help preserve the legs of Houston’s veterans. The average age of the Rockets ten key rotation players is 30.4 years old, which in professional sports years is 68.5 years old. More importantly, the Rockets have spent 82 games playing at a postseason pace. In the playoffs, games have a tendency to slow down. Defenses have extra time to scout opponents, often finding ways to limit go-to options. Each possession becomes longer, more valuable, and harder to come by. The regular season Rockets have already mastered the art of maximizing their point output without the benefit of extra possessions.
And The Warriors?
Since he took over in 2014, Coach Steve Kerr has been able to maximize his stars and spread the ball around, in part, by playing at one of the league’s fastest rates of play. Neither Kerr’s system nor Golden State’s stars have been fully immune, though, to the inevitable slow grind of playoff basketball.
With the exception of last year’s dominant playoff run*, the Warriors pace of play was slowed in each of their postseasons. In the 2015 playoffs, in which Golden State won the title, the Warriors averaged nearly five possessions less in each game. In the 2016 playoffs, the Warriors managed two less possessions in each game. More notably, in the 2016 NBA Finals, the Cavaliers were able to limit the Warriors to under 96 possessions per game, a departure from their 102 possession pace that was second highest during the regular season.
If you’re wondering how much of a difference a few possessions makes, just watch what Steph Curry actually did on just three consecutive possessions earlier in that 2016 season. Without the benefit of any extra trips to the offensive end, impossibly slow possessions, careless plays, and a superhuman play from the King (<--Warning: This link is rated NSFW -- not suitable for Warriors fans) submarined the Warriors down the stretch of the Finals and the Warriors lost Game 7, 93 to 89.
The Running Theorem
This year Golden State plays at the 5th fastest pace in the league, using nearly 102 possessions per game. Sound familiar? Houston’s no run, no problem offense has them using under 100 possessions per game. Playoff history tells us that a matchup between these two clubs will be played at an even slower pace than both teams are accustomed.
Standing: Style Of Play
Predicated on spacing the floor with shooters, the Rockets offense uses as much time as they need to isolate their two playmakers or put them in high ball screens in the middle of the court. With either James Harden or Chris Paul in full Dance Dance Revolution mode at the top of the key, Houston’s shooters patiently stand and watch as a shot is created for them or a teammate. While stand and watch isn’t one of basketball’s golden rules, having each player spaced apart on their own island makes it hard for defenses to help and recover in the way great defenses always do.
May I present, Exhibit A. I rest my case.
And The Warriors?
The last thing the Warriors want to do is stand and watch. The Warriors brand of perpetual ball movement, cutting, screening, and making openings for each other is some of the best the NBA has ever seen. But do you remember the NSFW clip from the 2016 Finals where the Warriors ball movement, off the ball cutting, and overall force of play was stymied as the Cavs held, hand-checked, and pushed their way to victory? Well that Warriors free flowing offensive style is still susceptible to the brutish non-fouls of postseason basketball.
The Standing Theorem
In the playoffs, defenses can hold Klay and bump KD without penalty. Can you foul James Harden at the top of the key without having him parade to the free throw line? Doubtful. Practical over pretty.
Shooting: Hoist The Trey
As I’ve covered on this platform before, three is more than two. Houston’s Coach-General Manager pairing of D’Antoni and Daryl Morey have always been at the forefront of the NBA’s three-point movement. Not surprisingly, this iteration of the Rockets is firing away from beyond the three-point arc at a revolutionary clip. The Rockets 3,470 three-point attempts and 1,256 three-point makes are both NBA single season records. For context, that’s almost 550 more attempts than second place. With that record-breaking shot selection, the Rockets are the first team in NBA history to shoot more threes than twos in a season, with 50.2% of their shots coming from behind the arc.
And The Warriors?
As we all know, the Warriors can rain treys of their own. As a team the Dubs shot over 39% from the three-point line, which is remarkable, yet normal for the Warriors.
The Shooting Theorem
While Golden State may have a team featuring three of the greatest shooters of all-time, Houston’s volume trumps all. Golden State shoots 3 percentage points better than Houston from deep. Houston, however, took 1,101 more three-point shots over the course of the regular season, an average of 13.4 more attempts per game. Stay with me, mathematically challenged readers. Despite shooting a lesser percentage, Houston scored 12 more points per game from the three-point line than Golden State.
This is the year. For Harden. For Paul. For D’Antoni. Golden State, we have a problem.
*In the 2016-2017 playoffs Golden State played Portland, Utah, San Antonio, and Cleveland. Portland and Cleveland ranked in the 21st and 22nd respectively in defensive efficiency during the regular season. San Antonio lost one of the league’s best defenders and best overall players in Game 1 of the Golden State series. The Utah Jazz, who ranked 3rd in defensive efficiency over the course of the regular season, was the only one of Golden State’s playoff opponents that was able slow Golden State’s pace below their regular season average. Golden State finished the playoffs with a Championship and a 16-1 record.