The Rockets have a date with Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals after becoming just the ninth team to rally from a 3-1 series deficit. What this group did is nothing short of remarkable.
After completely checking out for three of the first four games of the series, they managed to win Game 5 at home and then come back from the dead in Game 6. Game 7 proved that this was an actual, great basketball team and not just a bunch of guys who closed their eyes and shot a leather spherical object through a metal cylinder better than another group of guys. James Harden did James Harden things again. Dwight Howard continued to play like a Van Gundy was roaming the sideline. And everyone else on the squad did what they needed to do.
As the series wore on, Harden struggled to be effective despite putting up good numbers (including a triple-double) and managed to be on the bench for the biggest part of the Rockets season. But in Game 7, Harden attacked early and often, putting the Rockets offense on his back, putting up 12 points in the first quarter.
Harden would go on to lead the Rockets with 31 in the victory, doing it the vintage Harden way; at the free throw line. One adjustment Harden made throughout the series was the way he attacked coming off the pick and roll. Early in the series he was settling for step-back jumpers and kick outs to the corner. In Game 7 he routinely put his head into the chest of the defender trying to corral him (usually DeAndre Jordan) and it was hugely effective. Harden was able to get to the line 18 times and account for almost half his points from the charity stripe (15 points from the line).
Harden is going to have to employ this method in the Western Conference Finals as well. Andrew Bogut will most likely lay back in pick and rolls and wait for Harden to come to him. Harden needs to attack Bogut at the rim and force the referees to make a call. Granted it may take a few hard no-calls and some punishment, but Harden will eventually get some foul calls. It may not be pretty and it may not be ultra-efficient, but it's what Harden does best and he needs to stick to it.
In the games the Rockets lost to the Clippers, L.A.'s role players went off. In the games the Rockets took, some of their numbers are down right disastrous. In Game 7, J.J. Redick and Jamal Crawford shot a combined 10-30 from the floor and 5-18 from three. Whether you want to chalk those number up to fatigue, shrinking in the moment, good Houston defense or all three; holding the Clippers role players down played a huge role in the Rockets success.
Can the Rockets find this type of success against Golden State? Maybe. Klay Thompson tends to float in and out of games and can put up some horrific shots. Draymomd Green can be a streaky shooter and he was very up-and-down versus the Grizzlies. Andre Iguodala wasn't hugely effective for the Warriors in their win over the Grizzlies. Somehow forcing anyone but Stephen Curry is going to be the key to the Rockets success.
Curry is too good and bends the defense too much to just allow him to get whatever he wants. When compared to Griffin dunks, Curry three-pointers always seem to be backbreakers. The Warriors can withstand a poor Curry game but the team definitely feeds off him the most. Every Curry three feels like it will change the outcome of the game. Not to mention three is more than two.
I suspect that the Rockets will use a myriad of defenders on Curry throughout the series from Jason Terry to Corey Brewer to Trevor Ariza. I would like to see Ariza and Brewer get the majority of the assignment due to their length in hopes that it will bother Curry and run him off the three-point line. While Curry has amazing court vision, he can look for the home run and highlight-worthy pass that lead to turnovers. If the Rockets can turn those turnovers into transition points, they have a chance to do serious damage in this series.
One thing that the Clippers did well was exploit their advantages against the Rockets. Griffin was almost unstoppable in the post and Los Angeles milked him for everything they could. He put up ridiculous shooting numbers against the Rockets (never shooting lower than 47 percent in a game). The Clippers were able to take advantage of this without leaving the main concepts of their offense, and it forced Kevin McHale to make adjustments and react to the Clippers.
McHale, to his credit, was able to find ways to neutralize Griffin for some portions of the series. McHale had Ariza fronting at times, Howard banging with Griffin at others, then McHale would shade an extra defender his way, and most traditionally, send a guard off the weakest perimeter threat to double team him. The Warriors have already started talking about trying to take advantage of the Rockets in a way that deters from their greatest strength.
Shaun Livingston agreed that he’s likely to look for his post-game more in this series with the Rocket’s lack of point guard size.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 18, 2015
If the Warriors want to try and exploit the Rockets smaller guards (Terry, Prigioni) in the post, then the Rockets should let them. One would assume that Thompson, Shaun Livingston and Harrison Barnes would be the prime candidates to try and exploits these "mismatches. Those three shot 38.2, 41.6, and 40.6 percent on post ups this year per NBA.com. Those numbers are respectable but they may play into the Rockets hands. Thompson shot 43.9 percent from three this year. I'm sure the Rockets would love for Thompson to take a shot he makes at a lower clip that is worth less points.
Just as in the Clippers series, if the Rockets can limit the damage the Warriors role players do, the better chance they have to win. Green is an excellent player and worth all the praises he receives, but he has yet to put a team on his back and carry them offensively. The same goes for Barnes and Livingston. In his younger days, Iguodala carried an offense, but now as a role player his is asked to defend and be much more of a playmaker than scorer.
Curry and Thompson will get theirs. What will make the Rockets successful is how difficult Houston makes it on the Splash Brothers. The more efficient they are, the tougher it will be on the Rockets to succeed.
While the Rockets don't shoot the three at the same percentage that Golden State does (34.8 percent for Houston vs. 39.8 percent for the Warriors), Clutch City took the most threes in NBA history this season (more than five more threes per game than the Warriors). These extra shots are a way that the Rockets can compete with the Warriors.
Another way the Rockets can stay competitive is by getting to the free throw line. The Rockets were second in the NBA at free throw attempt rate. NBA.com describes this as who is good at drawing fouls and getting to the line. Not only will the Rockets have to continue to get to the line, they will need to know down their free throws.
We have yet to see if Steve Kerr and the Warriors will employ the away-from-the-ball intentional foul (commonly referred to as Hack-a-whoever). It will bode well for the Rockets if Harden and the rest guards can create free throw attempts and convert from the line.
The Warriors were statistically one of the best regular season teams ever, finishing first and second in defensive and offensive efficiency, respectively. The Rockets were no slouches, but playoff basketball has gotten the best of the Rockets at times so far this post season. Houston can ill-afford no-show performances like they turned in against the Clippers. The Warriors are too good on both sides of the ball. The Rockets don't have to play perfect basketball to win this series, they just have to take advantage when given the opportunities. And make threes. Make a lot of threes. And free throws. Make a lot of free throws.