The Houston Rockets, somehow, have made the Western Conference Finals after coming back from a 3-1 deficit to beat the Los Angeles Clippers in seven games in their Western Conference Semifinal series.
They’ll be matched up with the top-seeded Golden State Warriors, who finished the regular season with an astounding 67-15 record and a historically great plus-10.1 scoring differential. They swept the New Orleans Pelicans and beat the Memphis Grizzlies in six games to reach this series.
Can the Rockets keep pace with the Warriors? We’ll look at how Houston has gotten this far, its main X-factor for the series, what it has to do to to win and then a final prediction.
How The Rockets Got Here
Can you believe the Rockets made it past the Los Angeles Clippers in their second-round series? Just more than a week ago, the Clippers were one win away from the conference finals and each of their wins over the Rockets had been blowouts.
Surely, Houston would be put out of their misery soon enough. Right?
Wrong. James Harden, Dwight Howard and the Rockets’ brigade of feisty role players played with heart, energy and pace to wear down the depth-starved Clippers.
Those three qualities were never more evident than in the Rockets’ legendary Game 6 comeback.
With James Harden on the bench for nearly the whole comeback due to flu symptoms and inefficiency, Houston went on a 49-15 run in a 14-minute period spanning from near the end of the third quarter to just before Chris Paul’s meaningless three-pointer at the final buzzer.
In the series, Harden and Howard played decently well, but they weren’t amazing.
The Beard notched series averages of 25.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 8.1 assists, but only shot 39.8 percent from the field and had 5.0 turnovers per contest. D12 averaged 17.6 points and 13.9 boards, but his 38.8 free-throw percentage was a liability, especially in the Clippers’ wins.
Los Angeles’ two main stars, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, actually outplayed Harden and Howard, but where the Rockets made up ground on the Clippers was with their supplementary players.
Houston had seven role players (Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer, Josh Smith, Terrence Jones, Jason Terry, Pablo Prigioni and Clint Capela) play at least decently in the series in support of Harden and Howard.
Whereas for the Clippers, you could make the argument that only DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick (plus maybe Spencer Hawes) did the same for Los Angeles. Austin Rivers was super inconsistent, Matt Barnes was off from three and Jamal Crawford seemed like he was just throwing shots up randomly.
A good balance of star power and depth is what got the Rockets here, and it will continue to be their M.O.
The Rockets’ X-Factor: Josh Smith
When is Smith not the Rockets’ X-Factor? He’s one of those guys in the NBA who has trouble consistently capitalizing on his amazing talent, but when he does, he’s plays like a borderline superstar.
J-Smoove’s win-loss splits from the Clippers series are pretty extreme, and illustrate just how much the Rockets need the inconsistent power forward playing well to win. Below are his stats from the series.
In Houston wins: 12.8 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.3 blocks in 21.8 minutes per game on 51.4 percent shooting
In Houston losses: 5.7 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.0 assists, 0.3 blocks in 18.7 minutes per game on 25.0 percent shooting
Rockets head coach Kevin McHale made an adjustment before Game 5 by starting Smith instead of Jones, which evidently worked.
Against the Warriors, I’m not sure who McHale will start at power forward. Blake Griffin demanded a very good defender (such as Smith) on him, but Draymond Green isn’t as much as an offensive threat. The Golden State post will spot up outside the three-point line and make the occasional drive to the basket, but Jones should be able to guard that type of player.
If I were McHale, I would put Smoove back on the bench to start the Warriors series. He played all but seven of his Rockets games this regular season as a reserve and no doubt has a comfort level there. He can still play starter’s minutes, but if he gets himself going against some of the Warriors’ reserves, that could help him establish a rhythm for the remainder of the game (and series).
Also, with him coming off the bench, maybe someone else besides Defensive Player of the Year candidate Green will be forced to guard him. Draymond is the only guy on the Warriors I could see containing Smith’s versatile skill set when the Rockets forward on his game, so Smith needs to take advantage of any other matchup.
How the Rockets Will Win
First of all, Josh Smith obviously has to play well as the unofficial ringleader of the role players. If he’s aggressive and demanding attention from the defense, he can use his fantastic passing ability to get the Rockets’ spot-up shooters and post finishers involved.
Also, in the Clippers series (and all season, really), the Rockets’ offense went through periods of stagnation when it couldn’t get in transition. Houston’s half-court sets are not rocket science (pun intended) and almost always involve some sort of penetration by Harden in hopes of a layup, shooting foul or open three-pointer. McHale has to keep things fresh in the half court, maybe by running more of his spot-up shooters around screens for open threes or for crafty layups on backdoor cuts.
Both teams like playing at a fast pace, but if the pace slows down, I like the Warriors’ half-court offense and defense more, so Houston should try to play fast.
However, the Rockets absolutely NEED to watch out for transition threes if the pace stays quick. Both squads take plenty of long-range shots, but the Warriors are more accurate. If Golden State’s transition threes are kept to a minimum, they’ll need to catch fire out there via their half-court sets, which is a little bit harder for them to do.
The Rockets’ perimeter defenders will need to play the series of their lives to keep up with Warriors All-Star guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. As the Rockets’ starting lineup currently stands, only Trevor Ariza has the defensive chops to keep up with either of those two. Corey Brewer can come in for Jason Terry at times to adequately defend the Splash Brothers with Ariza, leaving Harden on Harrison Barnes or whoever the third wing is.
Dwight Howard also needs to get Andrew Bogut in foul trouble and force Warriors head coach Steve Kerr to reach into his bench for a Festus Ezeli or a David Lee. Ezeli is a capable defender, but not the greatest on the other end, while Lee is just the opposite.
If all of these things happen, the Rockets will have a solid chance of winning.
Who will win?
I really don’t like the fact that the Rockets have two perimeter defenders in their starting lineup that need to be hidden (Terry and Harden) when the Warriors have two All-Star guards. Brewer can help a bit, but he’s a energizer bunny type of guy that thrives on spreading his energy over just 20 to 25 minutes of play.
Also, Bogut is well-suited to contain Howard while Green can defend either Jones or Smith well.
The matchup doesn’t look good for the Rockets, but there are some reasons to think they can extend the series longer than some might think: the Warriors had two bad three-point shooting games out of the six contests last series, and when they aren’t hitting those baskets, they are quite vulnerable.
The Warriors’ interior offense is quite weak, as neither Bogut nor Green is good at creating points down low. The Rockets’ bigs won’t have to work extremely hard containing them on defense and can save some of that energy for the offensive end.
But in the end, Golden State has too many weapons and too much long-range acumen to lose to Houston.
The pick: Warriors in six games