By: Ravneet Singh
You could make the argument that the better team between the Clippers and Rockets lost the series. It's not a common sighting when that happens in a 7 game series. In fact it happened only so many times in the last decade that you could count them on one hand. Nonetheless, Houston played some of their best basketball sparingly in the last three games in this series. As much as we want to laugh at the Clippers for chocking their trip to the Conference Finals away, the Rockets deserve major credit for pulling through. They showed major heart with some luck can get you a long way in this league, but it will take a bit more of both to get past the Warriors.
The regular season meetings between these two teams wasn't entertaining nor was it particularly close. The Warriors won all four regular season match-ups by an average of 14.75 points per game. Dwight Howard played two of those games and the scores would indicate that it didn't matter. In the playoffs, however, Dwight has elevated his game.
Dwight is going to have to raise his level of play even more considering he's going against one of the best defensive centers in the league and since Playoff Harden is more of a timid Harden. I've already talked about how his numbers drastically decrease from the regular season to the playoffs, but he seemed even more hesitant against the Clippers than he did with the Mavericks or in the regular season. I had predicted that Redick wouldn't be able to guard him all that well and for the most part he did.
That's where it gets scary if you are a Houston fan. Klay Thompson is a far better defender than Redick, and his defense on Mike Conley in the last series didn't receive the praise it deserved. Klay will give Harden more trouble, as Bogut will with Dwight.
And we haven't even talked about Stephen Curry yet. The guy will dominate against Terry and Prigioni. Period. Houston may want to try Harden at the point with Brewer and Ariza on the wings (they did this for a little bit in Game 7 vs. LAC).
Houston's perimeter defense seemed suspect early on against the Clippers, but it definitely picked up as the series progressed. Redick struggled late in the series from three point land, while Crawford and Barnes couldn't buy many buckets from range (Jamal had a horrible playoff run in general). They will need to bring that perimeter defense against Steph and Klay.
Steve Kerr mentioned that they would most likely not hack-a-Dwight, because they don't want to slow the pace. If Houston is losing control of the game, they could go for the hack-a-Bogut strategy however. Bogut is shot 52% from the stripe in the regular season and only 25% in the Playoffs, per Basketball-Refernce.com.
It seems more likely that we see some fast up-and-down basketball. The Warriors were ranked 1st in pace, while the Rockets were ranked 2nd in the regular season, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Golden State has proven that they could play in the half-court as well. On the other hand, Houston has struggled at times when the game slows down.
Harden sometimes tends to get stuck in isolation plays so far in the Playoffs, not sharing the ball at times and forgetting to feed the big man. Tracy McGrady was mentioning that he would feed Yao Ming the ball early on to get him rolling, because he knew at the end of the game he would be able to get his shots up. Harden will need to understand he can't win this series like he wins games in the regular season and must give Dwight the ball more often than he has.
During the third quarter of Game 6 against the Clippers, McHale saw that the offense was stagnated with Harden in. Their offense had more of a flow without him during that ridiculous comeback. Smith was somewhat facilitating their offense, and it opened things up for him and Brewer.
That is why Smith will be one of the x-factor players in this series. If him and Terrence Jones could do enough to make Draymond Green work, it would help Harden in the pick and roll. It would mean that both of those guys would have to shoot well. Jones hasn't found his shot from there, but Smith has partly because of how open teams are leaving him. I know he was ridiculed as a Piston for shooting so many three's, but when no one is guarding him, he's not so bad. Look at how much space Blake gave Smith in Game 6:
So Houston's two best players will be guarded by very good defenders. When you have to face two excellent defenders on your two best players, it usually doesn't bode well for your team's chances to move on. That being said, Houston's best ball may be ahead, since they haven't had the guys on Playoff roster play all that much. The Rockets' best chance might be for them to let Curry go off, while they slow down everyone else. That approach worked against the Clippers. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin had their numbers, but everyone else was fairly disappointing. Unfortunately for the Rockets, the Warriors are a lot deeper than the Clippers and don't crack under pressure.
Warriors in 5