The Rockets (29-13) take on the Golden State Warriors (33-6) in Oakland tonight at 9:30 PM. The Warriors have taken the first three meetings of the season, most recently on Saturday in Houston. That one...did not go so well, with the Rockets getting spanked, 131-106. Still, in what promises to be an epic, nationally-televised showdown, the Rockets have a chance to get one back.
To suit the relatively momentous (for the regular season) occasion, The Dream Shake has come together to give you a super-sized preview, with four distinguished writers (and myself) breaking down what to look forward to, and what to watch out for tonight.
ESPN's coverage will undoubtedly focus on the "matchup" between the two leading MVP candidates at this point in the season: Stephen Curry and The Beard. In reality, Klay Thompson will almost certainly be guarding James Harden (and vice versa), and Patrick Beverley will draw the Curry assignment. Beverley has had trouble with the elite point guards of the NBA, getting roasted by Steph on Saturday, and Kyrie Irving two weeks ago, to name a couple. We know Pat's a good defender, but if he can't even slow down Steph, it's going to be a long night.
The Warriors' defense is possibly the best in the game, but if there's one thing James Harden can do against them, it's get his teammates open looks from three. Even if Klay Thompson slows him down scoring-wise, it will be imperative for Trevor Ariza, Patrick Beverley and the bench to hit their shots. A one-man performance is not going to beat this team.
Down low, Dwight Howard is going to have to show up against Andrew Bogut tonight and play well. That's not to say the Rockets need to "feed him early" like establishing the run game in football -- he doesn't do well in those situations anyway -- but he's got to win on the glass (especially the offensive glass) and be active enough to get some lobs.
Now, let's turn it over to some other voices to see what they think:
Ethan Rothstein (TDS Editor): In basketball, the importance of confidence cannot be overstated. Professional basketball players will consistently cite confidence as a reason they are playing well or poorly. So far this season, the Rockets have shown no confidence when facing the Warriors. The Rockets, and their fans, fancy themselves championship contenders, and that's not a bad thing. It shows confidence. But if they hope to hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy, they will likely need to beat the Warriors four times.
One win in the standings doesn't mean much -- though it means more this year in the Western Conference than ever before -- but one win against the class of the league means a ton. One opportunity to have game tape to study showing "this is how we beat this team." One example to back up the statement "these guys aren't even that good." One win, one extra dose of confidence, is exactly what the Rockets need Wednesday night.
Danny Emerman: The last time these two teams played was honestly an embarrassing performance for the Rockets. They lacked effort, intensity, and determination on both sides of the court. I'm excited to see how Kevin McHale will motivate this team to bounce back from the January 17 loss. Look for James Harden to be aggressive, because he threw up a complete stinker against GSW last week. Their MVP candidate outperformed ours last week, hopefully that will be different this time around.
alykhanb: The Warriors did an excellent job of closing out on shooters and forcing the Rockets to create offense inside the three point line. Dwight Howard, Donatas Motiejunas, and Josh Smith took advantage inside -- taking what the defense was giving.
However, James Harden had a poor showing; the Warriors shut him down early and he could not connect on jumpers. I'll be looking to see how the Rockets involve Harden early on the offensive end. Will they run HORNS or screen and roll to give him space to create and/or drive? Will they have Harden go through more double screens and off-ball action to counter Klay Thompson's aggressive play defensively and tire him offensively?
These questions will be answered early by the Rockets' play. He had open looks and opportunities to drive the lane vs. Golden State on Saturday, but he did not convert and therefore struggled. Getting Harden going early will collapse the Warriors' defensive gameplan and hopefully give the Rockets their first win vs. Golden State this season.
Mike De Moor: Saturday night's loss to the Warriors was one of the most embarrassing defensive performances in recent memory. Tonight the Rockets have been afforded the opportunity to redeem themselves against what has been the most dominant team in a historically loaded conference, but the matchup means a little more than just regular season payback.
Houston is on a season-long "We've Arrived" tour and another loss to a top-tier team will serve as a setback and a confidence shaker. The regular season is all about fortitude and staying the course, and the Rockets need to prove a disappointing loss isn't going to break their spirit. What this game will come down to is defensive effort, opportunistic offense and Houston's ability to take advantage of mismatches. Yes, James Harden has to shoot better than 4-15 and the Rockets need to hit their 3's at a better than 30% clip, but those offensive problems have a way of rectifying themselves.
On the other hand, Dwight Howard and other bigs failing to step out on opposing jump-shooting front court men is something that needs to be addressed immediately and the overly simplistic clique of "we need to play harder" is a applies in the most literal sense. Look for transition defense and momentum-shifting hustle plays (especially on the glass) to determine this game.