The Battle of the Titans: Rockets-Warriors 2018 WCF Preview

Heading into the inevitable Western showdown between Golden State and Houston, betting lines favor the Warriors, giving them about 66 percent odds to win the series. Charles Barkley thinks the Warriors will blitz Houston in four or five games. I have a different take.

First, lets acknowledge that this is a battle of titans by just about every reasonable measurement we can find. Houston’s full-season adjusted point differential (SRS) of 8.2 has been eclipsed by only 24 teams in history, and 14 went on to win the title. (A few lost to other super-teams themselves.) But that overlooks how injured these teams were this year. Among full-strength squads, Houston enters the series as the sixth-best team ever by SRS, posting a 48-4 record and 12.5 SRS with their core together this year. The best ever? Last year’s Warriors, who were the first full-strength team in history to top the 14 SRS mark (14.4). Given that the Warriors have posted an SRS over 10 in the playoffs and have ramped their defense way up, it’s safe to say they are playing like an all-time team again.

Other super teams have met before: The closest historical matchup was in 1972, when the full-strength Lakers (11.4 SRS) downed the full-strength Bucks (12.7 SRS). Milwaukee lost the series in six but outscored the Lakers by 14 points in the series, surrendering three close games that led to the defeat. The ’86 Bucks (8.5 SRS) were eviscerated by the ’86 Celtics (9.9 SRS), although Boston manhandled them in five regular-season meetings that year. The ’08 Celtics (8.8 SRS) toppled the Gasol-Lakers (9.7 SRS) behind home-court. And recently, the ’16 Cavs (8.7 SRS) defeated the Warriors (12.4 SRS). So the team with the better SRS or home-court won’t always prevail, and outside of 1986, each of these series has been competitive.

Golden State hasn’t manhandled Houston though. In the last two seasons when James Harden has played, the teams have split six games, with Golden State outscoring Houston by a mere 3.2 points per contest. In Houston, the Warriors outscored the Rockets by 5.3 points. Houston shot only 30 percent from deep in those games, slightly below their norm, which could be an indicator Golden State defends them well. Or it could be basic variance: Against top-three defenses this season, Houston shot 36 percent from downtown in 10 games with a polished 115 offensive rating. It’s really hard to take away their stuff, as I’ll discuss below.

Since the Warriors defense has been far more dialed in during the playoffs, I wanted to see how they recently defended actions similar to what the Rockets run: spread pick-and-rolls and five-out actions. Here’s a dribble-hand-off where Kevin Durant ends up too high and Anthony Davis ends up with a layup.

In this next play, the Pels use the hand-off again to get downhill in a two-man game. Draymond Green drops, then recovers to disrupt the lob. It’s not an ideal pass, but few are better in the game than Green at recovering to stop lob threats like this.

Green dropped hard on that play, but there’s no leaving Harden or Chris Paul in those situations. Because the Warriors switch so frequently, they end up in sets like the one below, where Durant is put into pick-and-roll coverage. He doesn’t recognize the switch call (presumably), and that downhill step leaves Paul all alone for 3. He and Harden eat these mistakes for lunch — it’s unwise to give them this kind of airspace:

Against New Orleans, Golden State defended spread pick-and-rolls by sagging off a man or cheating off non-shooters like Rajon Rondo. Klay Thompson’s presence in the lane clogs up entry options to the big man:

But against Houston, that corner defender never leaves, and the Warriors are often stuck defending the dreaded Harden-Capela duet with only two men. Green’s help is sound, but it’s an unenviable position to stare down the barrel of a Capela dunk.

The center of the floor is almost always vacant for Harden to attack, even against the Warriors. Green has some ability to limit this compared to mere mortals — notice his masterful recovery to save the play after Capela slips to the hoop:

Houston layers their basic attack with subtle wrinkles: In early offense, Eric Gordon sets a ball-screen here to spring Harden. Fortunately for Golden State, Green is on the floor, and he again saves the day:

He doesn’t always prevent the score at the rim, but he’s good enough to dent Houston a bit on these rolls and lobs. But when Green goes to the bench, the Dubs help defense becomes mortal. Here’s a typical set Houston finds in delayed transition, where Harden would play the role of Jrue Holiday. Harden makes these kinds of drive-and-kicks in his sleep:

In addition to lob defense, Green brings another matchup specific-strength here: He’s incredible at slowing down the roll-man on his dive to the rim. He literally bangs or holds his mark so he can’t roll (sometimes illegally), and this blows up plays. Below he puts Anthony Davis in a phone booth — Capela’s ability to slip and roll freely is a key for Houston in this series:

The Rockets kill teams with the Spain pick-and-roll — a backscreen for the original ball-screener. The Pelicans run Spain pick-and-roll here and this time Durant switches it really well while Green masterfully stays between the roller and the hoop, derailing the action:

Durant’s switch was on point in the previous play, but his defensive issues will be exploited. Here, Houston brings Curry into the pick-and-roll with Capela in the short corner, and it causes issues:

Harden will often pop that 3 with a clean look, but part of his brilliance is always looking for something better. Gordon uses Durant’s recovery to drive and PJ Tucker ends up with an easy triple. Tucker shot 40 percent on 205 corner 3s this year; Houston murders teams by finding shots like this.

Gordon has been fantastic at times this year, and here he recovers toward the 3-point line knowing Golden State wants to hit Curry there. Again, Green demonstrates his incredible lob defense on a Harden special:

I want to recognize Green here, who displays uncanny anticipation and spectacular recoveries on a regular basis. He’s one of the top-15 defenders in NBA history and a huge part of what makes Golden State worthy of the Hamptons.

I haven’t focused much on the Warriors offense, because they are a lab-engineered machine and no one can offer too much resistance. Houston’s switchability serves them well, and guys like Tucker, Luc Mbah a Moute and Trevor Ariza do well against a lot of the Warriors’ movement relative to average teams. Houston defensive coordinator Jeff Bzdelik also schemes against the Warriors fairly well; for instance, here’s a darn good way to handle this pin-down action that hurts most teams. Tucker stays in front of the screener while Capela jumps the curler and challenges Thompson’s shot:

Capela and Tucker seem key to me in this series on both ends. They are often the Rockets finishers on offense and present defensive fortitude around the hoop and on switches. I imagine both need a big series for the Rockets to prevail. Capela slides out well against the Warriors wings and is comfortable on an island against them:

And he does a good job in the midrange against Thompson here after seamlessly swapping with Harden:

Houston has been switching Harden onto bigs all year and daring them to run archaic post sets with under-qualified players. In this sense, Houston isn’t built to stop the Warriors, but they are built to guard them. I’d be remiss to not even mention the pesky Chris Paul, who freely switches onto bigs and often draws charges on them. He’s also just a pain in the butt on defense:

But still, the Warriors offense is divine. It’s possible they lose a quarter-step if Curry doesn’t have the lateral quickness to drop opponents in a blender like this:

Game location makes a difference too. In Houston, the Rockets were a staggering 26-1 with a 13.2 margin of victory (MOV) when healthy this year. Notably, they were much stronger on defense, posting a -4.1 relative defensive efficiency (while shooting only 36.9 percent from downtown). But the immovable object will meet an unstoppable force: The Warriors have gone 49-13 on the road at full-strength in the last two years with a 9.6 MOV. Houston’s 3-point defense has been its anchor at home this year, and if that holds, they might be able to hold serve. Still, it only takes one Warrior explosion to steal a game in Texas.

On the road, the Rockets boast an incredible 11.6 MOV and a 22-3 record when healthy with an offensive rating near 120. That’s absolutely bonkers, and they’ve shot far better away from the Toyota center, canning 39.4 percent of 3s in those games. The Warriors were “only” 9.9 points better than opponents at home this year in 19 healthy games (16-3), but they’ve shot nearly 42 percent from behind the arc at home in the last two years at full-strength. Their offensive rating in those 53 games was 120.9 and their margin of victory was a cool 15.1 points! The data says Houston can play with them in Oakland, but Golden State is all-time good at Oracle.

Harden’s play against a locked in Warrior D is the elephant in the room. I ran his numbers against different quality defenses, stratifying by opponent defensive ratings under 105 (top-three or so), between 105 and 109 (around or below average) and up to 113 (below average). His small decline against high-end defenses is quite normal, but against the Warriors, he’s struggled in the past two years:

Six games against Golden State is a small sample, but his free throw frequency has declined considerably. That’s a far more stable metric than 3-point shooting, and one largely responsible for Harden’s huge dent in scoring and efficiency against the Dubs. Harden’s better than ever right now, and his scoring (24.5 per 75) and efficiency (58.8 percent true shooting) were better in two contests this year versus Golden State, but he only took four free throws per 100 in those games. I don’t think he’ll flop, but all signs point to a below-average series from the Rockets rainmaker. (To be clear, he certainly will flop to draw fouls, although just how many might swing the series.)

Houston’s going to mostly do Houston stuff on offense, although Harden’s ability to get to the line and find clear 3-pointers might be a factor. Green’s physicality with Capela rolling in those actions could be the key to the whole series. Even Andre Iguodala — one of the greatest perimeter defenders ever himself — can still disrupt Paul or Harden if he’s ever put in pick-and-roll with them. The Warriors have counters on top of counters, and there’s no antidote for this:

The only time Golden State has dropped a series in the last four seasons was after Curry sprained his MCL and they ran into an offensive juggernaut led by an on-ball wizard. Houston has two. They own home court advantage, and more of the recent numbers point toward them winning the series. I worry about the Warriors defense with Green on the bench. I can certainly see Houston winning, and consider this a close matchup (sorry Sir Charles).

Yet even without home-court, I favor Golden State. Their two-year stretch is comparable to Houston’s single-year dominance, only they’ve demonstrated more robustness in their attack by shredding almost every playoff opponent and high-end team in their path. Sometimes, games boil down to who can chip at their opponents go-to options, and I see Golden State zapping a bit more off of Harden and their roll action than Houston’s defense shaves off the Warriors buzzsaw.

Either way, this series should be incredibly entertaining.

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