When you look peripheral stats in the box score, it would leave you to believe that the Rockets should have won Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.
Houston won the points in the paint battle, scored as many points as the Warriors did in transition and were only outscored by 1 in the second chance points category. But with Dwight Howard not at 100 percent, the Rockets couldn't hold on to steal Game 1 in Oakland. Now, with Howard listed as questionable for Game 2, where do the Rockets go from here?
The Rockets received another good game from Trevor Ariza, got Andrew Bogut in foul trouble for portions of the game and had the Bearded Breakfast Deflector do things that a Bearded Breakfast Deflector can do. But they still managed to lose the game.
Defensively the Rockets excelled before Howard went down with the knee injury. The Warriors shot just 2-6 at the rim against Howard but 14-32 on the rest of the Rockets. The other major issue for the Rockets in Game 1 was a lack of discipline on the defensive side.
Multiple times they left the best shooter on the planet wide open. And if the Rockets couldn't be bothered to keep track of Stephen Curry, they surely couldn't be bothered close out to the rest of Golden State's shooters (which they weren't). You can live with Curry hitting shots like this.
You cannot, however, live with him hitting shots like this.
Everything went downhill for the Rockets when Steve Kerr went super small and inserted Draymond Green at the 5. This lineup with Green, Curry, Shaun Livingston, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson has been proven by analytics to be the best 5-man lineup in the history of basketball (not really, but the numbers are trending that way).
So how do the Rockets counter? Hope Dwight is healthy enough in Game 2 to punish this smaller lineup on lobs and cutbacks at the rim? (Dubious, at best) Match Golden State with a small lineup with Clint Capela (who had a very effective Game 1), Terrence Jones (let me know when he shows up for Game 1), or Josh Smith (who had his moments, but is still Josh Smith) at the 5?
They can try all of these options out, like a buffet, but most likely won't be too satisfied with the results. Like a buffet.
My answer? Slow down. Golden State thrives playing uptempo, causing havoc and running into threes on the break. The Rockets don't have to make up for points just because the Warriors shoot the three so well. Houston managed to shoot about as well from three as the Warriors in Game 1, but not at the volume they want. The Rockets took 32.7 threes per game during the regular season, per NBA.com, but managed just 22 in the Game 1 loss. The Rockets shot 36.4 percent on threes in Game 1 (8-22), so math would tell us another 10 threes could lead to another three makes, which is another nine points and a possible victory.
Moreyball may not be aesthetically pleasing but you can't argue with the process. The Rockets focus on getting high-percentage shots at a high volume, just like the Warriors. Houston should also be able to get good looks at the rim when the Warriors run their small lineup out there. If Howard is healthy, the 4/5 pick and roll could be deadly to the Warriors small ball unit. Green can hold his own against Howard on a post up, but you can't ask Barnes, Iguodala, and Livingston to repeatedly challenge a healthy Dwight at the rim.
Howard shot just 3-7 and had five turnovers. This could have been due to the injury or Bogut's defense (he dropped way into the paint on pick and rolls). Either way, the Rockets need a better Dwight to win this series.
One adjustment the Rockets can make is to keep Howard near the short corner a la DeAndre Jordan. The Clippers big man stayed near the baseline to help bend the defense and allowed the pick and roll to create a mismatch. The Warriors would then counter by switching all screens (which they like to do anyways and isn't really a counter, just how they play defense).
Once again, the Rockets could use more action away from the ball. When the Rockets run a pick and roll, the other three guys on the floor tend to stand around. It's really easy to guard and then help off someone who is standing still.
Check out this play where Harden comes off a double pin-down before getting into a pick and roll. By the time Thompson gets through the third screen, Harden has created enough room and Thompson is trying to recover that the stepback gets Harden a wide open look. Harden is already great at creating space, allowing him to be one-step ahead of the defense is almost unfair.
Thompson also made a concerted effort to deny Harden the ball. Multiple times Thompson chased Harden out towards half court to make sure he couldn't get a catch. Harden read the overplay and was able to make Thompson pay with the backcut.
The blueprint for the Rockets is there. Unfortunately for them it relies more on the health of Howard than their ability to execute. Hopefully Howard is 100 percent for Game 2 and the Rockets are able to execute as well.