A look at the Red-Hot Houston Rockets + Can they beat the Warriors?
The Houston Rockets currently sit atop the Western Conference with a 21-4 record, and are being led by the MVP-frontrunner in James Harden. They have won 10 straight games, and are undefeated when James Harden and Chris Paul are both in the lineup. The question is, can they beat the Golden State Warriors in a seven game series?
The Golden State Warriors currently sitting at 22-6, and after starting the season 4-3, they have gone 17-3 since, and have won their last seven games. Coming into the season, the Warriors were widely considered favorites to repeat as NBA Champions, and now the Rockets have crept into the conversation with their strong start. Now, as a Warriors fan from the Bay Area, so I am biased, but I will attempt to throw all my bias out the window while looking between the two teams.
Statistically, so far in the season the Warriors and the Rockets are among the league leaders in most offensive categories. The Warriors are first in the league in points per game with 117, the Rockets are right on their tail with 115 ppg. Now, the real separation between the two teams comes on how they score those points. The Warriors rely on ball movement to find open shooters, and their defense to create enough turnovers to help them have the best transition offense in all of basketball. The Rockets rely on the three point shot to score most of their points. Houston leads the league in 3PA by a wide margin, they shoot 43.2 threes per game, and the next closest team is Brooklyn with 33.8. The Warriors are eighth on that list with 30.8 threes per game.
The Warriors revolutionized the three point shot on the backs of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson back in 2015, and ever since, the league has been trying to keep up by building teams around high-percentage three point shooters, and that had proven unsuccessful, as the Warriors have had the best record in the NBA every year since 2015. Most people thought that the Warriors shooting 30 threes per game was absurd, but now, thats standard. The Rockets are shooting nearly 45 threes a game, which is absolutely absurd. That being said, their strategy makes sense. Why even bother shooting regular shots when they are worth less than the three. They currently are on pace to have the best offensive rating of all time at 115.7, and that is 100% because of their absurd number of attempted threes per game.
Now, their historically great and absurd offense has been destroying the league, the question is, how will they fare when they run into the offense AND defensive juggernaut that lingers in the Bay Area. The Warriors currently rank in the top-8 teams in terms of opponent three point percentage at 35.2%, while also being the number one team in terms of overall opponent field goal percentage at 43.2%. The Warriors also lead the league in blocked shots per game at 8.7. The Rockets also have a pretty good defense, but they are 18th in opponent field goal percentage, and when they played the Warriors earlier this year, the Warriors shot 53.8% from the field and that included 53.3% from deep.
Speaking of when the two teams met on opening night, the argument that the Rockets are better because they won that game is invalid in my mind. On opening night, both teams are starting their season, and by the time the playoffs roll around, both teams will be playing completely different brands of basketball. The Warriors were still figuring out their rotations, turning the ball over like it was their job, and just got back from a long trip to China. The Warriors had a big lead going into the fourth quarter, but got sloppy again, and were a split second away from winning the game on a Kevin Durant buzzer beater. So, while the Rockets did beat the Warriors on opening night, there were a lot of outside factors that went into it, and by the time the playoffs roll around, the style of play will be much crisper for each team.
Now, if the teams happen to run into each other in the playoffs, I have no doubt that the Rockets will lose. Regardless of how great they are right now, the way Mike D’Antoni runs his rotations just wears players out by the time the postseason rolls around, and in big games, he has a tendency to just leave his best players on the court for the majority of the time. Steve Kerr is nearly the complete opposite, he is well known for getting all players on the roster their minutes, regardless of the game and regardless of the situation (see: Anderson Varejao in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals). When the playoffs roll around, the odds are that the Warriors will be incredibly well rested, while the Rockets will not be, and as teams figure out how to contain the Rockets’ three point shooting, they will be forced to work more in transition and with more ball movement on offense. Also, in the playoffs, the two players leading the Rockets, James Harden and Chris Paul, both have a history of crumbling in the postseason. James Harden’s playoffs numbers from inside the three point line have been incredible throughout his whole career, and his percentages mostly are consistent with his regular season numbers. The difference however, is in his three point shooting. His career playoff 3pt% is 33.5, and last year (his best overall season), he shot 27.8% from deep in the playoffs. This is significant because if his team wants to continue its style of primarily shooting threes, he will have to be significantly better from deep in the postseason for it to be effective, especially against the Warriors, who can shut him down inside the line. Chris Paul has always had good individual numbers in the playoffs, but his problem is that his team always crumbles, and he has famously never made it to the Western Conference Finals, and there are several reasons for that. The main reason for his teams crumbling around him is that he has the tendency to rub his teammates the wrong way as the year progresses, and that is because of his incredible intensity, and over the course of an 82-game season, his yelling gets on his teammates’ nerves.
Another thing to consider with the Rockets is that nearly the whole team is shooting well above their career average right now, by nearly 4% in most cases. Now, of course there are players who aren’t playing as well, like Eric Gordon, but in general, most of the team is playing much better than their average. This means that the team is bound to crash back down to Earth and end up going back to the way they’ve played throughout their whole career. As good as their numbers are right now, I don’t think that it is sustainable, and I actually think that they’ll end up ad the third best team in the west, behind the Warriors and the Spurs.
Now, I think that was as unbiased as I can be about this whole thing. On an unbiased note, there is no way that the Rockets can beat the Warriors four times in seven days. There is no real reason for the Warriors or their fans to be worried right now. I also think it is hilarious that Rockets fans are all over twitter after every game asking Warriors fans if they are scared yet, like a small child constantly looking for approval. Chris Paul and his teams always choke in the playoffs, and James Harden was atrocious in game six against the Spurs last year, and until he has an incredible playoff series, I won’t take this team seriously. I think that the Spurs are the Warriors biggest competition in the West because Coach Popovich can out-coach Steve Kerr, and Kawhi Leonard will have a lot fewer miles on his feet by the time the playoffs roll around. I can’t wait for January 4 when the Warriors and Rockets play next, and I think that the Warriors are going to blow them out of the Water, and all Rockets fans will have simultaneous existential crises, and I’ll laugh hysterically as it all goes down.