Friday, May 11, 2018

Clown Without Pity’s Super-Thorough Warriors vs. Rockets Preview & Prediction

Starting Monday, my beloved Golden State Warriors finally get to play the series that I think they’ve been awaiting this entire season. Having closely followed this team for years now, I feel pretty confident saying this is how our team feels about this upcoming matchup (and this clip demonstrates a big reason why Draymond is my favorite player):

And this is an accurate reflection of our confidence going into this series:

Conversely, all season long, the Rockets have been playing for this exact moment: home court advantage in the Western Conference Finals against the team they are obsessed with beating. All season long, much has been said about how the Rockets savant general manager, Daryl Morey, has “constructed” or “built” a team to beat the Warriors.

This is exactly what they asked for.

But I think they’ve got another thing coming.

Judging from Draymond’s post-game interview response after eliminating the Pelicans, I think ESPN’s Jemele Hill is incisive and spot on in believing that the Warriors will be laser-focused for this matchup and intent in making a loud and fucking resounding statement in this series. This is bad news for the Rockets, who we’ve eliminated twice in the past three years.

Throughout the regular season, Houston was undeniably the hungrier of the two teams. They were intent on winning as many games as they could—and they were great. Houston is an astounding 50-5 when James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela play together. On the other hand, I humbly believe the Warriors regular season was akin to a prodigy sleepwalking through a long, unstimulating semester and just waiting to crank it up to study their ass off for a critical final. Now that the stakes are truly raised, now that the Warriors are playing in the postseason, eight wins away from another championship, eight wins away from cementing themselves as an all-time great NBA team, the Rockets no longer have that edge they had during the regular season. The Warriors have their edge back, which means our defense is championship-level again. If you want evidence of that, just compare our vaunted Death Lineup’s +26 rating in only 18 minutes against the Pelicans in Game 4 of their series with their putrid overall defensive performance during the regular season. It’s night and day.

In terms of predicting this series, I humbly agree with Jalen Rose: if the Rockets want to win, Harden, CP3, Capela and Gordon “all need to be outstanding.” I think that’s too much to ask for over the length of a series, especially against a mighty opponent like the Warriors.

Speaking of CP3 (a.k.a. The Point God) and all the folks who have been saying, oh, well, James Harden doesn’t have to singlehandedly beat the Warriors now that they got Chris Paul!, I distinctly remember that he once played for this team called the Los Angeles Clippers before he was traded to the Rockets. With CP3 as their domineering floor general, the Clippers had lost ten consecutive games against the Warriors. And most of them were blowouts either at Oracle Arena or at Staples Center. One of the key reasons the Warriors manhandled the CP3-led Clippers was because Steph fucking slayed Paul in those matchups. Steph delights in playing against CP3. Honestly, this short clip is the most succinct way of summing up that matchup:

Despite CP3’s greatness, I’m not concerned whatsoever with that matchup in this series now that Steph is back and healthy. At best—if Harden plays like an MVP (and historically, Klay defends him really well)—I think the backcourt matchup between both teams can be a push.

I think there’s a couple of intangibles that strongly favors the Warriors in this matchup, especially the frontcourt matchup. Houston’s probable starting forwards will be P.J. Tucker and Trevor Ariza.

We’ll likely go with Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala.

It’s just not fucking fair.

Ten years from now, your standard NBA fan won’t remember Tucker and Ariza (though Ariza was an instrumental role player on the Lakers 2009 championship team). But ten years from now, everyone will remember KD, who could retire after these playoffs and still easily become a first-ballot Hall of Famer. As for Iggy, he’s not a Hall of Famer. Even if he gets two more rings with the Warriors I don’t think he will have a slam-dunk case to make the Hall of Fame, but, I think he’s someone who would be in the spectrum of consideration. And if he retired after these playoffs, I think he would be rightly remembered as one of the NBA’s great wing defenders, particularly in this high-scoring era with rules that are favorable for offensive players. And if you think I’m talking up a bullshit storm, please refer to his defensive performance on LeBron James in the 2015 NBA Finals, or watch his one-on-one defense against Kyrie Irving in last year’s Finals. At his finest, Iggy’s a poor man’s Scottie Pippen with possibly a slightly higher basketball intellect. In other words, he’s not too shabby. Any sane and competent GM, coach, or fan would take KD and Iggy in a coked-out heartbeat over Tucker and Ariza.

This may be blasphemous to Steve Kerr and his devout penchant for an egalitarian passing offense, but I hope the Warriors emulate their opponent and play some Rockets-style iso-offense to target James Harden on defense. The Utah Jazz employed such a strategy with rookie phenom Donovan Mitchell in their surprising Game 2 victory in their series. They mercilessly targeted Harden at the end of that game, and The Beard couldn’t keep in front of Mitchell. Harden got beat so badly that his teammates began to swarm the paint to stop Mitchell, which only opened up their perimeter shooting once he dished it out. This was the same strategy the Cavs used in their upset Finals win back in 2016 when Kyrie and LeBron targeted Curry again and again and physically wore him down throughout the series. I think a similar strategy can help to wear Harden down on the offensive end—and he almost assuredly has to play like an MVP if Houston wants any chance of winning. No matter what the Warriors do, I am confident that by the end of this series, people will be reminded of how shitty Harden still is defending out on the perimeter where players can routinely zip past him.

If you ask me, the key matchup in this series will be Durant vs. Tucker (and whoever else the Rockets throw at him). It’s going to be a bellwether matchup. In order to win, the Rockets have to slow KD down. There’s no exceptions to that. They have to make KD an inefficient scorer for at least a few games. And they probably have to keep his scoring average in the low-20s at most.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, for his career, KD is averaging 28.7 points per game in the playoffs—which is currently the 4th highest scoring average in playoff history while shooting 47% from the field. With the Warriors, he is averaging 28.3 and shooting 53% in 27 games.

So good fucking luck with that, Houston.

If KD’s shooting and scoring close to his career playoff average in this series, I don’t think Houston stands a chance of winning. If KD is efficiently scoring in the high 20s and low 30s, Steph or Klay can have an off-shooting night and we can still win. The Warriors are that talented.

Tucker is an excellent defender. Like Draymond, Tucker is the dude who gives the Rocket some much-needed grit. Earlier this season, I saw him body up KD one on one; he got into his airspace, and it bothered Durant. Tucker will make KD work for his points, and the long-armed Mbah a Moute is no slouch on defense either. Ditto that for Ariza. But in the end, Tucker—who will likely be KD’s primary defender—is such a limited offensive player. Basically, he can hit spoon-fed, wide-open threes, and that’s about it. It’s just no match for the high basketball IQ and offensive playmaking that KD and Iggy bring to the table.

The Rockets one clear positional advantage is at center with Clint Capela. The Warriors have no big man who is his equal. He's exceptionally athletic, quick and rangy. He's quick and long enough to potentially defend Steph in isolation, which could be big for Houston if he can pull it off. To counter, I think Kerr is going to undoubtedly turn the bulk of his minutes at the 5 to Kevon Looney. In our lone win against Houston this year, he had a solid game off the bench: 7 points and 8 rebounds in 15 minutes with a solid defensive effort. I think Kerr's going to start him in Game 1 at the 5 because I think Kerr would like to see if we can beat the Rockets without using his ace card, which is starting the Death Lineup. If he performs well, I think this is the series where rookie Jordan Bell can have a big impact because he's our one big who is quick and athletic enough to run up and down the court with Capela. But Kerr's going to have a short leash on him if he struggles.

Like last year’s uncompetitive Finals, I think once this series is done, everyone is going to be reminded of just how “unfairly good” the Warriors are, as Mike Greenwood recently put it. To put Harden and the Rockets over the top, Daryl Morey needed to do more than add one player from the Banana Boat Team; he needed to add two of those guys (and one of those players couldn’t be Carmelo Anthony because he is a Grade-A narcissistic team-killer). Adding CP3 and two defensively-talented but offensively-limited journeyman players is not going to cut it against an all-time great basketball team whose players are still in their prime.

What should be immediately frightening for the Rockets, and the Cavs and Celtics, is that the 2017-2018 Warriors may just now be peaking. With their Death Lineup (a.k.a. the Hamptons 5) resurrected after a season-long, largely self-induced malaise (injuries factored), they may very well peak in this series and impose their will over the Rockets like a basketball version of a kraken. In fact, I think they will peak in this series. And here’s the thing: I think Houston already peaked in the regular season. They sputtered a bit at the end of the season (sure, they had the #1 seed wrapped up, I know), and they have looked only sporadically dominant in these playoffs. Back in March, when they needed last-second heroics to beat a lottery-bound team like the Suns, they began to remind me of a team I know pretty fucking well: the 2016 Warriors who finished with a 73-9 record, a team that exerted itself and peaked in the regular season before sputtering at the finish line.

To boot, I think Houston’s home court advantage is going to be a detriment for them once the Warriors aggressively impose their will in front of their antsy, piss-poor home crowd. I think opening on the road will actually be to the Warriors advantage because our guys know they have to go in and take at least one game from them, which should ensure that they will be sharp and focused.

Much has been made about Houston’s 50-5 record when Harden, Paul and Capela take the court, but I predict that the Warriors impressive 24-3 record in the playoffs with Kevin Durant on their side will trump that mark.

And one last intangible for this series: I’d rather have Steve Kerr leading my team in a high-pressure situation than Mike D’Antoni. As a player and coach, Kerr is now a seven-time NBA champion. Luck and opportunity figured into that, of course—like any success in life—but it’s far from coincidental.

And in a few weeks time, he’ll have an eighth ring to add to his collection.

Prediction: Warriors in 5

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