The Houston Rockets actually did it! After all the ups and downs of their tumultuous season, the Rockets snuck into the playoffs by beating up on the helpless Sacramento Kings last night. A big thank you to the Utah Jazz as well for their epic collapse over the last two weeks. Thanks Jazz!
Now the really hard part begins as the 41-41 Rockets travel to Oakland Saturday night to play the 73-9 Golden wState Warriors in a rematch of last year’s Western Conference Finals. Will the Warriors even drop a game? The #1 seed defending champs won the most regular season games in NBA history, doing so in dominating fashion with a historically good offense led by greatest-shooter-ever Stephen Curry. The #8 Rockets meanwhile, have been what their record indicates they are – a mediocre team seemingly destined for a quick playoff exit.
But we play the games for a reason. Even though the Rockets are HUGE underdogs, they bring back the same team that played the Warriors close last season, this time with a healthy Patrick Beverley and semi-healthy Donatas Motiejūnas. The Rockets have also played great the last 3 games (granted they were against bad teams), while the Warriors have stumbled a little to close out the season. Can “Clutch City” live up to its name? Can the Houston Rockets pull off the historical upset and shock the world? YES, and this is how they do it.
Rockets Offense / Warriors Defense
The biggest thing that we learned from last year’s playoffs is that Harden is a legitimate superstar who will get his numbers no matter what. Last year against the Warriors in the WCF, Beard averaged 39.7 Minutes, 28.4 PPG, 7.8 REB, 6.4 AST on .467/.429/.868 shooting. Amazing. But aside from the Kevin McHale “give Harden ball” strategy, the Rockets need other ways of attacking the Warriors defense.
First, let’s discuss the obvious alternative to Harden: Dwight Howard post-ups. It makes sense intuitively – Howard is bigger and stronger than anyone else on the “death” lineup of Curry-Thompson-Green-Iguodala-Barnes, so post him up. But as Rockets fans sadly know, Howard is not the dominant force he once was. Whenever he gets the ball in the post, it most likely ends up in an awkward hook shoot or turnover.
Looking at the numbers this year, the man only scores .82 Points per Possession (PPP). As a comparison, the Rockets usually score 1.056 points per possession (20% better!). Howard only scores on 43.8% of his post-ups, but turns the ball over in the post a whopping 16.5% (!!!) of the time. That number is only going up against potential Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green and the quick hands of Curry/Iguodala. Turnovers are the one thing the Rockets cannot afford on offense against the Warriors. Turnovers lead to easy fast break 3PTs and Dwight simply can’t be trusted as a post-up option because he turns the ball over so much.
That is not to say the Rockets shouldn’t try posting up. Lebron showed us last year how effective post play can be in slowing down the dubs, even if you don’t score much from there. Harden, D-Mo, and maybe Michael Beasley are all viable post ups options instead of Howard, especially if the Warriors switch screens. Rockets should especially look to utilize D-Mo more; the 7’1 Lithuanian scores more points per post touch than Howard, is a better passer, better FT shooter, and most importantly doesn’t turn the ball over. Posting up D-Mo also gives Howard more chances at offensive boards.
Offensively, Harden should imitate what Lebron did last year and mix in more post-ups instead of the riskier pick and roll. Yes, Klay is a good defender, but not good enough to guard Harden 1v1.
If Warriors switch slow-footed Harrison Barnes onto Harden, even better. Yes, posting Harden means other guys will be standing around, but that’s better than Ariza trying to drop dimes. Another plus – post-up shots don’t usually lead to long rebounds so Rocket defenders have time to get back. Posting up slows down the game which reduces the number of possession the Warriors have to exploit their talent advantage.
Pick and Roll is still Harden’s specialty, but he has to be selective when to use it. Green, Bogut, and Ezeli are all excellent PnR defenders and Harden hasn’t found sustained success against them.
Instead of trying the Warrior bigs, Harden needs to look to exploit slower/smaller PnR defenders like Harrison Barnes, Steph Curry, and Marreese Speights. Also, it’s probably better to start the screen from further out so Harden has more space and momentum to work with. See the examples below with Speights and Barnes.
J.B. Bickerstaff should try screening more with Ariza/Beverley instead of Howard/D-Mo and run Harden at Mo-Buckets whenever the two are on the floor. Barnes isn’t going to block Harden and the numbers when Beverley is the roll man? 1.29 PPP. Granted, it’s a very small sample, but it’s a play I’d like to see the Rockets try to use more this series like what the Cavs did with Lebron/Dellavedova last year. How else are you going to make Curry play defense? Let Patrick Beverley go at him 1v1? When the Warriors have such good and versatile big men defenders, the Rockets need to get creative in finding opportunities with Harden PnR. Look how a simple Beverley screen leads to a Howard dunk.
When they don’t switch it, the Warriors sometimes defend Harden PnR by ICE-ing it and overloading the strong side with an extra defender. When this happens, the cross court skip pass can lead to good things, but that means spot-up guys have to hit their 3s…. We probably won’t see too much of 27.2 3PT% Corey Brewer this series.
Offense won’t be a problem for the Rockets; it never is when you have James Harden. Most of the strategies I talked about above are more meant to prevent turnovers and fast breaks than to score 120 points a game. Rockets just have to be careful not to hurt themselves on offense and they will be fine on that side of the floor.
Rockets Defense / Warriors Offense
The last part where I praised Harden for his offense? Here is what Steph Curry averaged in the WCF last year. 36.8 Minutes, 31.2 PPG, 4.6 REB, 5.6 AST on .515./.491/.806 shooting. The man is a machine.
The defensive side is really where Clutch City (and any other team) is going to have problems. The Rockets are one of the worst 3PT defending teams in the league, a point I covered extensively my previous post. The Warriors are the best 3-PT shooting team. Bad 3-PT defensive team vs. best ever 3-PT shooting team… Did I mention that the Rockets are underdogs?
Of the Warriors 115 PPG, 18.2% are scored off fast breaks and 34.3% off 3PT. However, they are dead last in league in points off free throws, 14.5% – and once they get there they only shoot a pedestrian 76.3%. Curry shoots over 90 FT%, but Green, Iguodala, Rush, Varejao, Ezeli, Bogut all shoot under 70%. Yes, 70% is above “hack” range, but still the Rockets should understand that they can be liberal using their fouls. The Warriors will not beat you from the FT line. Caught in a screen? Foul the screener. Warriors on a fast break? Foul before they can shoot. Be aggressive fighting over screens and don’t worry about getting called for the foul. This slows the pace down, breaks up screen plays, and if you end up in the bonus, just start hacking Bogut or Iguodala. Anything to keep Curry/Thompson from going on momentum shifting 3PT spurts. If you can keep the Warriors to just 1 PPP you have a chance. The Cavs last year and Bucks this year used this strategy very well.
Aside from fouling, this is how the Rockets defend the Warriors deadliest play – The Curry/Green pick and roll. Usually, either Curry gets open from Green’s
illegal screen, or Green ends up with the ball rolling down the lane. Later in the season, teams started putting wings on Green so when the screen happened, the wing would just switch onto Curry and make him go 1v1, like OKC putting Kevin Durant on Green below.
*Side note: Notice how Green tries to trip Durant in the above clip.
I’d like to see the Rockets do this more with Ariza on Green; it is just such a simple way of shutting down a dangerous play. But because the Warriors can screen with almost everyone, eventually there will be times when a playmaker is rolling down the lane ready to shoot, pass to the corner, or pass to a waiting big man. In this situation, this is what the Rockets do: Let the rolling man shoot a mid-range or floater. Stay home on the shooters and trust your big. Dwight/D-Mo/Capela need to resist the urge to go for the block and instead let, say Draymond Green, shoot a floater. This is not easy, but look at the Warriors FG% from floater range just outside the Restricted Area – where else do the Warriors shoot sub 40%?
This is why the Jazz almost beat the Warriors twice this season. Rudy Gobert is long enough to stay with his man, but also prevent the roll man from getting a dunk. As a defense, you’d be ecstatic with Green floaters.
Another strategy teams have tried is to switch every screen that Curry goes through and let him going 1v1 against someone bigger. Yes, he will sometimes still score, but at least this way nobody else gets involved. Notice how the Spurs and Timberwolves switch everything for Curry, and how other Warriors are left standing around.
There is also the matter of knowing your personnel. NBA offenses are so good that you have to give up something. Against the Warriors, you can’t ever lose contact with Curry or Thompson, but you can live with Iguodala/Green/Barnes/Barbosa/Livingston/Speights shooting 3s. You can close out hard on Barnes and making him a playmaker instead. You are okay with any Warrior except Livingston posting up. Dare anyone besides Curry try to isolate; it usually isn’t very efficient.
But at the end of the day, you can only plan and scheme so much against the Warriors; they just have too many weapons. Backscreens, cuts, Curry 30ft. bombs… you can only do so much. Maybe Rockets fans should go church Saturday morning? In Warriors wins, they shoot 42.6% from 3PT. In losses, they shoot only 32.7%. Sometimes you just have to pray they miss.
3 Things I’m looking for
1. What impact will Dwight Howard have?
Dwight Howard is a great defender in the paint, but awkward when he gets switched onto a perimeter guy. D-Mo and Capela are actually much better perimeter defenders. Bickerstaff knows this (I think) and Steve Kerr definitely knows this, so it will be interesting to see how Howard plays a PnR. He definitely can’t lay back against Curry, but he’s not really good at switching or blitzing either (this is why the Cavs paid Tristan Thompson $82 million, because he can switch). Either way, this will be a major series for Howard in terms of setting the market value for his next contract. Can he be counted on to defend small ball, or is he a relic of pre-2010 Centers?
2. Will the Rockets try to match Warriors small ball?
I talked about this a lot in my last post, but I think it’d be a mistake to try to match Warriors small ball with Rockets small ball. Unless you have Lebron James at PF, you are not beating the Warriors by “out-smalling” them. Instead, Rockets should stick to their strengths. Play Howard/D-Mo or Capela/Smith and you have two defensive bigs, two guys who can get offensive boards. I’d rather have D-Mo end up on Curry than Beasley anyway.
3. Can Patrick Beverley make Steph Curry play defense?
Patrick Beverley has been really aggressive over the Rockets last 10 games.
To me, it almost looked like he has been going out of his way to be the second playmaker the Rockets have always lacked. I like the idea. Yes, sometimes it will be frustrating watching Beverley randomly charge in 1 on 3, but if he stays aggressive and puts constant pressure on Curry, I can live with that.
- Post-ups will be key to slowing down the Warriors, but Dwight Howard should not get touches because he turns it over so much down there. D-Mo, Harden, and (maybe) Beasley are all viable post-up options, especially when Warriors switch on screens. Also, posting someone else up gives Howard a better chance of crashing offensive boards.
- The Harden PnR is a potent weapon, but Rockets have to be selective when using it against the Warriors. PnR against Bogut/Ezeli/Green as the big won’t go anywhere, but against Barnes/Speights/Curry it can be very effective. Rockets should get creative and try experimenting with Ariza and Beverley screening more instead of Howard.
- When Warriors load up the strong side against Harden, he will look for the skip pass into the corner. This means whoever is spot-up at the corner has to knock down a respectable percentage of 3PTs, which means 27.2 3PT% Corey Brewer will have a very short leash.
- Offense won’t be a big problem for the Rockets – they just have to be careful not to hurt themselves with live ball turnovers.
- Defensively, Rockets can slow the game down by fouling liberally when guys are stuck on screens or Warriors are on the break. Sending the Warriors to the line is preferable to giving up fast-breaks or open 3-PTs because the dubs have so many sub-70% FT shooters. The Warriors won’t beat you from the line.
- Rocket wings should stay on their man and force a Warriors roll man to shoot floaters or mid-range jumpers. The Utah Jazz with Rudy Gobert did this really well. Granted, this is very hard to do.
- When Curry comes off a screens, teams have tried switching everything and living with him going 1v1 against a big. Rockets should seriously consider this strategy. Curry isolations are one to make sure that Klay Thompson won’t score 37 points in a quarter against you.