First, let’s go through this position-by-position.
Point guard: It took a couple games for Stephen Curry to play like an MVP instead of playing like a guy who keeps thinking, “Man, I can’t believe I’m THE MVP!” The hangover is now a distant memory, and the way he finished Memphis is still lingering in my brain like the Mad Men finale. Then there’s Shaun Livingston, who always defends but showed in the second round that he can pick a team apart with his midrange game if left to his own devices.
The Rockets have Jason Terry, one of my all-time favorites, and Pablo Prigioni, who came up with some big steals in Game 7 against the Clippers. Terry is 37 and was never much of a defender anyway, and Prigioni is 38.
Advantage (and it’s enormous): Warriors
Shooting guard: There’s no way James Harden keeps shooting the way he did against L.A., right? Either way, he’s an MVP candidate and (obviously) the main focus of Golden State’s defensive game plan. Even though Klay Thompson is up to the task of staying in front of Harden, Thompson could get into foul trouble in any of these games and that could change things rather quickly. The Rockets also have Corey Brewer, who was instrumental in Houston’s Game 6 comeback at Staples.
Small forward: Harrison Barnes is better in the playoffs than he is during the regular season. We can make that assertion by now. He’s bigger than Trevor Ariza, and often ends up playing power forward when the Warriors go small. Ariza plays close to 40 minutes per game against the Rockets and has a ton of experience (he was a key player when he won a ring with the Lakers). Barnes has been a bit more efficient in the playoffs. Oh, then the Warriors have Andre Iguodala, who has an offensive rating of 123 and a defensive rating of 104 in the playoffs.
Power forward: The Rockets have the edge as far as depth, since Mo Speights’ availability is in doubt and the Warriors don’t know what they’ll get from David Lee on any given night. Josh Smith and Terrence Jones comprise a fearsome duo in a sense, but the IQ difference between them Draymond Green and David Lee … well, let’s just say it’s vast and leave it at that. Green had a good series against Memphis, the toughest matchup for him in the NBA. I think he’ll have a great series against the Rockets, a team he teased a bit after the whole “they ain’t that good” mini-controversy.
Advantage (slight): Warriors
Center: Dwight Howard’s playoff numbers can’t be overlooked: 17.2 ppg on 58.8% shooting, 13.8 rpg, 2.5 bpg and 1.3 apg. Bogut blocks shots at the same rate as Howard and he isn’t asked to score or play as many minutes. His job is to keep Howard from grabbing offensive rebounds and converting lobs, while keeping the rest of the Rockets honest when driving lanes appear. The Warriors also have Festus Ezeli, who’s earned more minutes after his performance in the second round. He may see time against Clint Capela, who’s played 91 minutes in the playoffs after just 90 minutes during the regular season.
Advantage (slight): Rockets
As most people know, both of these teams can score but only one can defend, and that team happens to be favored by 10 points tonight. The Warriors have the ability to check Harden and force him into shooting more midrange jumpers than he’s used to taking, and he shouldn’t be a huge problem unless — as mentioned earlier — Thompson gets caught reaching too many times, especially early.
The Rockets have no real way to stop both Curry and Thompson at the same time. If I was Kevin McHale, I would take drastic measures.
Even though I’ve loved watching Terry’s career, especially in big moments like these are about to be, he’s next to worthless against Curry. I’d move Brewer into the starting lineup and have him defend Curry, have Ariza guard Thompson, and put Harden on Barnes. Or, put Ariza on Curry and Brewer on Thompson. Curry can outrun and out-maneuver Brewer and Ariza, but he can out-everything Terry, and that lineup might give Houston an advantage on the boards. The Rockets absolutely must win the rebounding battle if they have any hopes of taking this series.
To summarize, here are some things that go in Golden State’s favor:
- The Warriors are a much, much better defensive team.
- The Warriors hold home court advantage.
- The point-differential, um, differential (10.1 ppg – 3.4 ppg = 6.7 ppg) between these teams is the largest in a Conference Finals series since 1996.
- The league MVP should have a much easier time than Houston’s MVP.
- Golden State’s mental resolve was tested and they came out stronger (as opposed to the Clippers, who wilted in historic fashion).
And, in the Rockets’ favor:
- They’re a lot deeper than Memphis, even with the injuries to Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas.
- They know what it’s like to play the Warriors, while the Warriors aren’t as familiar with this Rockets team.
- Unlike the Grizzlies, they won’t get tired out by a faster pace.
- They’ve got that whole Cinderella thing going after their last series, plus the nobody-believes-in-us thing. Do those things matter? Who knows.
- If the games are called tightly, the parade of Rockets to the free-throw line could frustrate the Warriors.
I recently wrote how this is not the same Rockets team the Warriors beat four times during the regular season by an average of 15 points per game. That’s what makes this series harder to predict than it otherwise would be. But the only way this Rockets team has any chance without Beverley (who may make a surprise cameo at some point, but is reportedly “unlikely” to play in this series) is if the new guy (to the Warriors), Terrence Jones, plays out of his mind. I’m not sure how that happens against a team with defenders like Green, Iguodala and Barnes, and that’s really the key here. The Warriors are the best defensive team in the NBA, while the Rockets have been one of the worst defensive squads in the playoffs.
Prediction: Warriors in Six