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Rockets vs. Warriors conference finals preview with Golden State of Mind

TDS Editor Ethan Rothstein goes back and forth with a GSoM writer in advance of their epic showdown

Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The series is here. Monday night, the Golden State Warriors will roll into the Toyota Center to open the Western Conference Finals against the Houston Rockets.

By now, if you’re like me, you’ve read probably 10,000 words or more, listened to some podcasts and watched as much tape of these two teams as you can find time for to get yourself mentally ready for this series. Five days off is a lot of time.

In order to more fully understand the dynamics at hand, I reached out to the good folks over at Golden State of Mind, who are basically the most tolerable Warriors fans you can find. I went back and forth with one of their top writers, who goes by Duby Dub Dubs, to get even more ready for the series. Below is a transcript of our email exchanges:

The Dream Shake: The showdown we’ve waited for all year has arrived! I can’t wait for Monday night, if only just to reach some sort of conclusion to the question we’ve been pondering over for almost a full year: can the James Harden-Chris Paul-Mike D’Antoni Rockets take down what is arguably the greatest NBA team ever assembled? All of the numbers say these teams are about as even as can be, so let’s start there: do you consider the Rockets a nearly even matchup with the Warriors? Are you more nervous about a possible loss to this team than you were to, say, the 2017 LeBron Cavs, who the Warriors comfortably dispatched?

Golden State of Mind: OK, I’ll gloss over everything like the historic record of studly performance that the Warriors have in our back pockets, but just want to quickly interject that both Harden and Paul have struggled against Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry (citations available upon request).

But sure, I freely admit that this Rockets team is definitely and clearly one of the most dangerous opponents we’ve ever faced. I’m incredibly biased of course, but I would easily admit that the Rockets are about as close to an even matchup as we’ve seen.

Now, if you bring LeBron into it it gets more complicated, because most of those Cavs teams sort of sucked. But they all had one salient feature: they had LeBron James. James is the boss fight in the NBA, and until the Rockets have won a championship, I just can’t put them in the same group.

So, that’s probably a horribly useless analysis. Bottom line is that yeah, the Rockets are easily the best team on paper that we’ve faced, but the game isn’t played on paper, ya know?

TDS: I’ll grant you that. I became more optimistic because of Chris Paul’s incredible performance in Game 5 against the Jazz. They’re a better defensive team than the Warriors, and they could only execute on slowing down one of CP3 and Harden at a time. And, need I remind you, although this was long ago, that Harden almost led the Rockets to two wins in a row at Oracle Arena the year the Dubs first won the championship. Close is for horseshoes and hand grenades (and we don’t need to talk about how that series ended), but there is plenty of evidence to show that the Warriors sometimes give the Rockets’ two Hall-of-Famers problems, but not always.

At this point, as a Warriors fan, what are your biggest fears? Obviously these three years of dominance have dulled that sensation, but in what ways do you think the team could theoretically lose to the Rockets?

GSoM: My greatest fear is that the regular season did indeed matter. That the Warriors will lose focus, or play lackadaisical, and the Rockets will jump out to an early lead and never give it back.

Because when you talk about the Jazz being a better defensive team, my response would be “yeah, in the regular season maybe,” because if you look at the playoff stats, the Warriors (at 99.3 [points per 100 possessions]) have the postseason’s best defense — by a wide margin. But again, I can only hand wave your point away by discounting the entire regular season, where our defense was a respectable 104 or so, but only good enough for 9th in the league.

And I wrote on this at length in our series preview, but yeah, there is definitely a conceivable path where the Rockets beat the Warriors. I think it’s going to take pretty much everything you got though — Harden and Paul will have to both be superb, Capela has to be playable against our fast pace and spread offense, and one or more of your role players (like Green or Gordon) are going to have to get hot from deep. Oh, and you’ll also have to find an answer for our super lineup, the so-called Hamptons 5, which Kerr finally uncorked with impressive results in our last series. That’s always been our ace in the hole, so finding an answer to that lineup is of paramount importance.

The thing is, all of that sounds fairly reasonable. The Warriors have clearly not had their edge all season. For a team so reliant on a knockout punch, Golden State really needs our haymaker runs to knock a team down. As per a recent ESPN article, the Warriors have more 10-0 runs than any other team in the league over the past four years — including 14 times against the Rockets. That’s all well and good, but it’s put us in a vulnerable spot. If that third quarter run doesn’t materialize, we are dead in the water. And specific to the Rockets, they may have a 10-0 run of their own, which just further softens the impact of these haymaker runs. And it scares me that our team just sort of assumes these runs are going to occur.

TDS: The Hamptons 5 is a scary lineup, but then again, every lineup is scary when it features Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. Those two are the scariest players to me. I’ve seen Stephen Curry have plenty of cold stretches, and despite the fact that I know him catching fire in Oracle Arena is singularly powerful basketball moment, I think Durant is the scarier offensive player. His performance against the Pellies was ruthless, and even back against a vastly overmatched Spurs team, every time they went on a run, it was Durant who answered it.

Capela has been a monster in these playoffs, and, in all honestly, has probably been the best two-way player on a night-to-night basis for Houston so far. Green is the best defensive player in the league, and the Swiss Roll is still just 23. I worry that Green’s yapping and intense play could lead to Capela wilting, even though it’s clear that he is not easily intimidated. His man-to-man blocks of Towns and Gobert still give me chills to think about. The Warriors have simply not faced a Rockets team with Capela playing at this level, or this many minutes. If he can meet Draymond’s challenge and outplay yet another All-Star-caliber center, the Rockets will win.

By the same token, I am fascinated to see how Houston’s trio of long-armed wings fare against Durant. He hasn’t faced a defense like the Rockets’ yet. And while Golden State’s D might be the best in the playoffs so far, the Rockets’ has been second-best. While they haven’t been forced to do it much, the Rockets have showed on both ends of the ball that they have another gear in them. The Warriors have to bring it out of them. P.J. Tucker is going to have to be key for that to happen; he’s Houston’s best energy guy and best glue guy. You will see him get rebounds and loose balls this series and stare at the screen in disbelief that Tuck has the ball.

OK, so I’m sure I know which way you’re predicting, tell me how you think the Warriors will win and how many games it’ll take?

GSoM: Ok, so first of all, it is absolutely INSANE how much disrespect Steph Curry gets. I know that’s not the subject at hand, but let me just say that, although Draymond is up in your face more about things, Curry is by far the more lethal threat. You didn’t see him do anything against the Spurs because he was out, and then this Pelicans series was his first basketball in months, so there’s still some rust. Be advised though, he’s probably your team’s No. 1 defensive priority.

But I get what you’re saying: Draymond mucks up a lot of plays, both at the rim and on the perimeter. I guess I’d say that while he’s perhaps a significantly more disruptive force, Curry holds the edge in raw plus/minus power as far as what he can do.

It’s good you brought up Durant and your defenders though, because I wrote about this a bit in my game 1 preview: do you really think P.J. Tucker is a meaningful deterrent? Durant has a nearly LeBron-esque ability to abuse anyone who tries to stop him. He did real damage against us when we last faced him in the playoffs, and he’s look outrageously focused and determined this postseason. I know there’s some small samples from recent history, but in general, Durant doesn’t seem like he’d have a ton of trouble. Some? Yes.

But I’m skeptical that Luc Mbah a Moute is going to be able to do anything that looks like shutting KD down. I’m also pretty curious to see how Houston integrates their new switch-everything defense with the reality of Durant owning CP3 and Harden off of switches in Steve Kerr’s motion-heavy offense.

Now, Capela? I think that guy’s going to be a problem, and I listed him as one of the key factors. It’s looking increasingly likely that Kerr is going to go with his best five players from the opening whistle. Keeping Capela on the floor is going to be one of the deciding factors in this series. I think that if the Rockets can still run with the Warriors, while keeping your elite rim protection in there, it’ll be critical.

Side note: I love Capela. If I had an official vote for Most Improved Player it would be him. Granted, I haven’t watched a ton of Rockets games, but even from afar, Capela has made some impressive leaps, both during the regular season, and now in the playoffs. I’m super pumped to watch him and Draymond chase each other around.

The other thing that I’m worried about, as far as how the Warriors fall to the Rockets: Curry is still coming back from injury, and injury that kept him out for a long time. It’s been a really weird season for him. Other than a portion of one game, Curry hadn’t played a game since March 8. He’s played four games, but is still adjusting.

I assume it’ll all be good. But facing a dangerous Rockets team isn’t exactly a great time to be finding your groove again.

OK, and I’m going Warriors in 6 as my official prediction — though I must admit that I bought my tickets to game four on the off chance the Warriors mop the floor with Harden’s beard. I think we’ll see a lot of really tight games (like the season opener), and while I think a Rockets victory would be a pretty huge surprise, the fact that I’m guessing six games means that there will be a few moments of sphincter-tightening Houston dominance as well.

What about you? How confident are you that the Rockets can get past these Warriors?

TDS: Not confident at all. But I still think they will do it. As a fan, I have to have some faith that the demons Harden and Paul have faced in the playoffs are ones they can/will overcome, because the alternative is not a pleasant mental path to go down. It’s old hat at this point, but it’s true that this Rockets team was constructed for the specific task of challenging the Warriors. I think Daryl Morey did the best job possible with the tools at his disposal, but those tools need to be working properly for the plan to actually work.

Doubt LMAM’s defensive ability at your own risk. It remains to be seen how much he can give the Rockets’ offensively, but the dude is a stopper who is almost as big, and definitely stronger, than Durant. My favorite thing about him and Tucker is how ready they have been for the moment. That’s more than we can say about Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza, who have gone ice cold. Both have defended well, but the reason they get more minutes than Luc is that they are better shooters. Gordon in particular could use a series around 40% from deep.

Gordon picked it up toward the end of the Utah series, which was one of the factors that led the Rockets to win three straight to snuff the life out of the Jazz.

My official prediction: Gordon gets hot, Capela stays on the floor and owns the paint, and Harden and Paul combine to average more than 50 points on their way to a career-defining series win, including a Chris Paul dagger in the deciding game in Houston. Home court does its thing, and so does the Beard. Rockets in 7.