The Pro’s Playoff Preview: Western Conference Finals

I’m going to be honest. It kind of kills me to watch playoff basketball right now. It’s tough to see Houston in the Western Conference Finals when we beat them last season but they earned it! Every time I tweet something about the playoffs, I get the replies like “Have fun watching from the couch!”

Jeez, man.

It sucks, but I’m a student of the game. I feel like it’s my homework to watch these teams and see what they’re doing and how they execute in pressure situations.  It’s like ordering vegetables when you really want French fries.  Have to do what’s best for your mind and soul even when you don’t want to.  So here’s how I see the Western Conference Finals breaking down.

Gut reaction:
Lace up your Nikes tight. This is going to be like an open gym game. Both of these teams like to play at a fast pace and shoot a lot of 3-pointers. Golden State and Houston were no. 1 and no. 2 respectively in possessions per game in the regular season — averaging about 100. That’s some uptempo basketball.

What to watch for:
The intriguing thing about this series is the chess match of defensive matchups. Who’s going to guard Steph Curry? Assuming Houston primarily uses Trevor Ariza, who is excellent, that still creates mismatches elsewhere on the floor. How long do you put James Harden on Klay Thompson? Because Klay’s always moving in transition. Defending him takes a lot out of you. Houston relies on Harden to initiate the offense and create shots for himself. Is he going to have enough in the tank to do that and run with Klay all over the floor? It’s one thing to simply guard a guy and it’s another thing to be an active defender — not falling asleep, not going under a screen at the wrong time. It’s mentally draining to be on 100% of the time on both ends of the floor, especially when you’re the team’s undisputed shot creator. That’s a tall task for James.

Unfortunately, I don’t see an alternative for Houston. Klay will be guarding Harden for sure (when they switched him onto Mike Conley in the Grizzlies series, it changed the whole game). So if the Rockets decide to “cross-match” and put Harden on someone else on the defensive end, that plays right into the Warriors’ strength in transition. They feed off of the slightest little confusion or hesitation. While you’re scrambling around the court trying to find your guy in transition, it’s already too late. Draymond Green is one of the best in the league at grabbing a defensive rebound and starting the break. Houston needs to stay committed to the “Three Back” rule on offense. Whenever they put up a jump shot, they need three guys to immediately hustle back to the defensive end at a very high clip. If you look at the TV and see Harden take a jumper and there’s only two Rockets backtracking, they’re going to be in trouble. The best teams in the NBA have “three back” 70% of the time or more.

What I’ve learned from playing these guys:

The biggest thing you learn from playing against a team as good as the Warriors is that you absolutely cannot fall asleep for a second on defense. Their unselfishness and the ability to make the extra pass will exploit even the smallest defensive breakdown. If you give Curry an inch, he’s going to take a mile. If you sag off Klay, he’s going to catch and release before you can even get a hand up. It’s one thing for a team to play fast. It’s another thing to play that style and still be under control and committed on the defensive end (as I mentioned earlier, mental effort on one end of the floor often has a price on the other end). The Warriors are the only team in the NBA that’s consistently close to 100-percent locked-in on offense, defense, and in transition.

Watch this unselfish extra pass from Klay Thompson to Steph Curry for the easy corner 3.

In the half-court, Golden State’s pick-and-roll is deadly and it’s not just because of Curry’s ability to set guys up and get them leaning the wrong way. It’s also because their screeners — Bogut, Green and Lee — seek out contact. They don’t mind paying the price to get Curry or Klay an open look. The best-case scenario for the Rockets is if the Warriors come out cold on 3-pointers, because those shots creates long rebounds, which plays into the Rockets’ strength in transition. The problem is that Curry and Thompson are shooting 41% and 44% from 3. So in a seven game series, that’s more wishful thinking than a realistic scenario.

So what can the Rockets do? If I’m Kevin McHale, I’m telling my guys to force Curry to be a drive-and-passer by any means necessary. You have to run him off that 3-point line and make him play as close to Dwight Howard’s orbit as possible. Will that have repercussions? Sure. He’s got one of the best floaters in the NBA. But you live with that and just tip your hat. You cannot let Curry get into #Stephortless mode , where he gets into his rhythm and starts hitting 26-footers off the bounce that barely touch the net.

Make no mistake, the Rockets can score, too. Harden is going to get to the free-throw line. He has the ability to lull you to sleep with the double between crossover and then once he turns the corner on you and feels contact, you have no chance. He puts the ball up under your arm and the ref has no choice but to call the foul. If he can get Klay Thompson in foul trouble early, that takes a big chess piece off the board for Golden State.

One X-factor for the Rockets is Josh Smith. They’re a different team when Josh Smith is able to handle the ball and make good decisions. He deserves a lot of credit for turning his game around this season — he’s shooting 37% from 3 right now, and his ability to make that lob pass to Dwight Howard in pick-and-rolls is a big asset. The addition of Corey Brewer has given the Rockets a more frantic pace in transition that was a huge factor in the Clippers series. Those role players need to be effective and efficient to give Harden a breather on the offensive end.

Who wins it:
It takes a very disciplined, focused team to beat the Warriors at their own game. I don’t think it’s going to happen this season. It’s not just their shooting. It’s their versatility at the defensive end with Draymond Green’s ability to guard five positions and to switch onto Harden on ball screens. Houston’s strength in pace and transition is trumped by only one team. Unfortunately, that team is Golden State.

Warriors in 6. 


 I’ll be back with an Eastern Conference preview tomorrow. Eat your veggies.