From the moment the Houston Rockets acquired Chris Paul, it seemed as if it was a forgone conclusion that they and Golden State Warriors were destined to meet in the Western Conference Finals. As both teams breezed through the regular season and dominated first two rounds of the playoffs, the stage is set for the much anticipated matchup. With both teams playing their best basketball of the season, let’s take a look at how each team made it to this point and the keys to the upcoming series.
The Rockets are coming off back-to-back five game series’ in which they simply overwhelmed the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz. They have been led by the steady play of Chris Paul, who is coming off of an efficient 41-point game five victory against the Jazz. Paul has been a model of consistency throughout the playoffs, and while MVP candidate James Harden has been great at times, he has had some poor offensive performances as of late. If the Rockets are going to have any chance at beating the Warriors, both James Harden and Chris Paul will need to play up to their full potential.
The Warriors have also cruised through the postseason thus far with series wins over the San Antonio Spurs and the New Orleans Pelicans. Their playoff run is even more impressive considering they have partly been without Stephen Curry, who is coming back from a knee injury. In his absence, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson have carried the load offensively, and role players such as Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala have done the dirty work defensively and on the glass. Although the defending champions are considered a finesse team, they regularly outrebound their opponent and often have the edge in turnover margin. The gritty play of Green and Igoudola combined an offense that spreads the floor and moves the ball better than any team in the league will force the Rockets to play a near perfect series in order to advance.
From a schematics standpoint, the winning formula for the Rockets is simple: they need to hit more 3-pointers than the warriors to have a chance of winning the series. Their style of play is predicated on shooting from beyond the arc and their losses in the playoffs have occurred when the 3s aren’t dropping. They also need to limit the production of Klay Thompson. The Rockets have the ability to withstand high scoring games from Kevin Durant and Curry, but they must not allow a third scorer like Thompson to get hot. Players like P.J Tucker and Trevor Ariza will need to commit to guarding the perimeter and prevent Thompson from getting open 3-point attempts.
From a Warriors standpoint, it is no secret that their main priority will be to limit Harden’s scoring as much as possible. The best way to do that will be to break his rhythm and give him a multitude of defensive looks. While it is unrealistic that they can completely shut him down, Harden is a streaky player that has been susceptible to bad shooting nights if he is taken out of his comfort zone. If Golden State can disrupt his rhythm, the Warriors should be able to control the series. The defending champions will also need to attack Chris Paul and make him work on the defensive end. By forcing him to defend at a high level, Paul will likely wear down and be less effective scoring at the end of games.
Despite the dominance of the Warriors over the past few seasons, I believe the Rockets will play well in this series and provide a real challenge for Golden State. In addition, one factor that will benefit the Rockets is the fact that they have home court advantage. The Warriors play well on the road, but if the Rockets can win game one at home, the pressure will shift to the favored Warriors, who have not trailed in a series during the playoffs. While I expect this series will be close initially, I think the Warriors are too dominant offensively will ultimately end up winning in six games. In any case, this series will be the most entertaining series in the playoffs by far and the winner will likely be heavily favored against whichever team comes out of the East.