May 28, 2018, 9:51 am
The Western Conference Finals lived up to the skeptical hype. After six games, the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors have played to a standstill. These are seven factors that will help decide an epic Game 7.
The turnover battle
Golden State has committed four turnovers in each of the past three first quarters. Houston, by no coincidence, has taken leads of six, nine and 17 points, respectively, into each second quarter. Some of those mistakes have been by commission. The Warriors come into every game preaching pace first and foremost, instructions that sometimes serve as a vehicle for their worst offensive tendencies to materialize from the jump. That was certainly the case in Games 5 and 6, when Golden State, trying their damndest to beat the Rockets’ ziplock defense with tempo in the halfcourt and transition, threw the ball all over the floor.
Fortunately for the Warriors, it’s not like Houston has done much better protecting the ball. The Rockets had 21 turnovers on Saturday, upping their average in losses to 19, a whopping six more giveaways than they commit in victories. Golden State scores 22.7 points off those turnovers in Houston losses, versus 13.3 in wins. The Warriors turnover disparity in wins and losses, and the Rockets’ ability to capitalize off of them, is similarly stark.
It’s not revelatory to suggest that turnovers and their consequences are a reliable indicator of winner and loser. But Houston and Golden State have made a habit of trading careless miscues, and whichever team avoids them early will be in the driver’s seat for the Finals. Not every sizable first-quarter lead can be overcome.
Golden State’s defensive focus
After a 29-point victory that saved his team’s season, Kerr couldn’t help but take issue with how the Warriors began Game 6 defensively.
“I thought it was kind of a strange game because our defense has been really good throughout the series, and tonight it was awful to start the game,” he said. “We lost people in transition. We didn’t communicate. We gave up wide-open threes. They scored 39 points in the first quarter. It was kind of a head-scratcher.”
Golden State improved markedly as the game wore on, of course, forcing Houston into an 87.9 offensive rating and 21 turnovers, both series-worsts. Draymond Green wreaked havoc all over the floor, Klay Thompson made James Harden work for all he got and the Rockets’ transition attack, deadly early, produced just three of its 24 points after halftime. The Warriors, with the aid of Chris Paul‘s absence, dominated Houston defensively following the first quarter, when they allowed a postseason-high 39 points and eight Houston triples.
It doesn’t take a nuanced basketball eye to see how the Rockets got out to such a scorching hot start, either. Just as Kerr alluded, Golden State took a shockingly casual approach to stopping Houston early, ceding open shot after open shot not by virtue of great offense beating good defense, but often by any discernible lack of resistance whatsoever. They routinely failed to matchup in the open floor and miscommunicated on switches, leading to easy looks from Houston’s most dangerous offensive players. Mistakes like these are unacceptable at any time in the playoffs, but especially during the sixth game of a series that’s left little room for major schematic adjustments from night to night.
Conventional wisdom says there’s no way the Warriors play such lackadaisical defense in the opening moments of a road game that will decide the Western Conference. But that nagging lack of focus until circumstances of time and score have forced the switch to be flipped has plagued them throughout this title defense, including Saturday night’s elimination game. Will Golden State fall victim to that tendency again in Game 7? If so, it should prove much, much harder to come from behind at Toyota Center than it did at Oracle Arena.
The offensive impact of Clint Capela
Capela, singled-out by some as a potential bellwether before the Conference Finals began, has hardly been as much for the Rockets. He’s yet to play more than 31 minutes in this series, and has the worst on-court rating, -11.7, of any Houston regular. Mike D’Antoni has consistently downsized in crunch time, too, leaving Capela on the bench in favor of slotting P.J. Tucker at center. Those developments aren’t necessarily the fault of Capela alone. He’s been effective switching onto perimeter players both on and off the ball, and consistently made a major difference on the offensive glass. Houston’s offensive rebounding percentage dips from 23.1 with him on the floor, a team-best, all the way down to 15.5 when he’s off it. And Tucker, as awesome as he’s been defensively against the Warriors, can’t come close to duplicating Capela’s influence at the rim on either side of the floor.
With or without Paul, the Rockets need every means of offense they can muster to lighten the load on Harden. He used 42.2 percent of Houston’s possessions in the first half of Game 6, a workload that had clearly taken its toll by the time the future MVP needed to rescue his team from another Golden State onslaught. A few easy baskets from Capela, via length and athleticism more than anything else, would go a long way toward keeping Harden fresh, even if it’s his dribble penetration that allows Capela to get them in the first place.
The Harden-Capela connection hasn’t been quite as potent in the Conference Finals as it was in the first two rounds of the playoffs. In 10 games against the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz, Harden assisted Capela for 3.7 field goals per game. That number’s nearly been cut in half versus Golden State, with basketball’s deadliest ball handler-roll man tandem teaming up for just 12 of Capela’s scores through six games. Why? The switch-everything nature of this series is a contributing factor there, obviously, but Green’s innate ability to stymie that two-man game, with perfectly-timed contests and multiple efforts, looms far larger.
Capela took just three shots over 29 minutes of play in Game 6, and had a team-worst offensive rating of 67.7. If Paul can’t play in Game 7 and Capela remains a non-factor offensively, the Rockets will be fighting an uphill battle. Capela’s defense and rebounding, good as its been, just won’t be enough by itself in a do-or-die game against Green and the reigning champions.
The back end of the Warriors’ rotation
Looney has proven himself a reliable, if undeniably limited, regular for Golden State. Of the 24 Warriors duos that have logged at least 40 minutes in this series, Green and Looney’s net rating of +17.6 is the highest. The second, third and fourth-ranked tandems include Looney, too. Still, his sustained success is an anomaly with regard to the surplus of traditional big men at Kerr’s disposal, a situation complicated by the absence of Andre Iguodala over the last three games.
“We’re operating under the assumption that he won’t play,” Kerr said of Iguodala’s availability for Game 7.
As a result of injuries to Iguodala and Pat McCaw, who got garbage-time minutes on Saturday after missing the previous eight weeks, Golden State has been forced to play two of Looney, Jordan Bell and David West for brief stretches when Green needs a blow. The Warriors have gotten away with it so far. In 17 total minutes two big men have shared the floor with Green on the bench, Golden State has outscored the Rockets by five. Still, that’s not a configuration Kerr is comfortable with due to Houston constantly screening and re-screening the weakest perimeter defender onto Harden, then spacing the floor with shooters around him. Playing a pair of non-shooters, especially bigs, only makes it easier for the Rockets’ help defenders to load up to the ball, complicating matters for Kevin Durant and Steph Curry.
There’s a real chance Kerr avoids these lineups altogether, earmarking more time for Shaun Livingston, who presents his own problems offensively, or giving McCaw a chance at rotation minutes. Either way, every possession Green is off the floor is one Houston needs to win – and each of those that come with two Warriors big men playing together represents a golden opportunity to do just that.
Klay Thompson, on-ball screener
The Warriors first found traction using Thompson as a screener on the ball in Game 5, and enjoyed even more success in that regard on Saturday night. Four of his whopping 14 3-point attempts came after he set picks at the top of the floor for Durant. The Rockets don’t want to deal with that action any differently than they do other screens, but switching seamlessly between two of the game’s several best shooters, without sacrificing an inch of space, is an especially difficult task under the stress of high ball screens. Thompson confused Houston by running into picks and quickly slipping out of them, and used similar deception to fake more deliberate screens, searching for real contact before again scurrying into open space.
In Game 4, Golden State deployed Thompson as a ball-screen partner for Curry, at one point using him in a staggered screen with Bell. After Bell rolls to the rim, taking away the most immediate source of help defense, Thompson slips into that vacated area for a catch-and-shoot.
The Utah Jazz blitzed the Rockets in Game 2 of the second round by intentionally avoiding contact on every pick-and-roll, and D’Antoni’s team adjusted the next time out by initiating switches with even more speed and aggression. Doing so takes a special type of activity and communication against any ball-screen tandem, but especially one involving Thompson and either of his MVP teammates. Golden State will bust out this gambit at least four or five times in Game 7; how Houston responds, and how close defenders are able to stay to Thompson, could go a long way toward deciding its outcome.
The weaponization of Kevon Looney
After Iguodala went down with a knee contusion, the Rockets committed even further to cheating away from the Warriors’ least-threatening offensive players, overloading the strong side of the floor with an extra defender to ensure Durant and Curry see color on isolations and pick-and-rolls. Houston has largely decided against guarding multiple Golden State players, but none to the same extent it has Kevon Looney, who’s struggled to take advantage of attention focused elsewhere. Looney is shooting just 10-of-19 in the restricted area in this series, a troublesome success rate for a non-shooting big man regardless of the ease of those attempts. And to be clear, Looney has missed what seems like two or three bunnies every game.
Rather than continuing to feed him the ball near the rim and hope for different results, Golden State, getting back to its motion-heavy roots, has weaponized Looney off the ball over the last two games. There’s just not much the Rockets can do when Looney gets the ball on the perimeter without his defender in sight, and Curry or Thompson immediately sprints off him into a dribble hand-off – catching the would-be help defender woefully out of position to get an effective contest.
Look where P.J. Tucker and Harden, Looney’s defenders, are stationed in the clips below when Thompson and Curry take his hand-offs and launch.
Shrinking the floor to make life hard on the Warriors’ stars is absolutely crucial to Houston’s hopes of stopping them. The Rockets can’t afford to treat Looney, Green, Livingston, Bell and more like legitimate scoring threats, risking Durant and Curry taking over against true one-on-one defense. The blueprint for beating Golden State has always been making role players beat you. Looney won’t be able to do it as a scorer, but weaponizing him as a passer in Games 5 and 6 has helped the Warriors re-discover their lost sense of offensive identity – something they’ll need to hold onto facing elimination on the road.
The fickle nature of jump-shooting
The difference between a winner-take-all Game 7 and this series having already ended is a missed wide-open triple by Quinn Cook with under a minute remaining in a one-point game. He couldn’t connect on two other great looks from three during earlier portions Golden State’s Game 5 loss, either. If just one of those tries goes down, from a 44.2 percent 3-point shooter, the Warriors might have closed out the Rockets on Saturday, using the next few days for rest and rehabilitation ahead of a fourth straight NBA Finals opposite LeBron James.
You can play that “what-if” game over and over under duress of the playoffs, where the value of individual possessions is magnified to its fullest and rightful extent. Cook, naturally, isn’t the only role player who could have swung this series by knocking down one or two more open looks from the perimeter. Trevor Ariza is shooting just 7-of-24 on 3-point attempts against the Warriors when there isn’t a defender within four feet of him, per NBA.com/stats. Draymond Green has been even worse, going 1-of-10 on threes the league website defines as “wide open.”
The stars will get ample opportunities to shine, and odds are they will. Big-time players are at their best in big-time moments, the old adage goes. But the NBA is still a make-or-miss league on the macro level; whichever side’s supporting pieces happen to hit their open looks is often the slim margin between winning and losing.
That’s an unfortunate reality of the utmost team game in major professional sports. And on Monday, it will probably decide who’s holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy at season’s end.
February 18, 2020, 10:25 pmJohn Beilein, Cleveland Cavaliers
According to Adrian Wojnarowski, John Beilein is leaving as the Cavs’ coach and J.B. Bickerstaff will be elevated to head coach.
It’s still not official, but once Woj says it’s happening, it’s happening. A shake-up is likely to be a great thing for this roster that contains at least a few unhappy star players in Kevin Love and Andre Drummond. Be ready to act on any significant role changes that come with this move. For example, will Larry Nance Jr. and/or Kevin Porter Jr. take on expanded roles?
Source: Adrian Wojnarowski on Twitter
February 18, 2020, 7:23 pmTerry RozierPG, Charlotte Hornets
Terry Rozier (left knee soreness) practiced in full on Tuesday.
Rozier missed the Hornet's final game heading into the All-Star break, but it wasn't considered to be a long-term concern. Feel free to get Rozier back into all lineups ahead of Thursday's game against the Bulls.
Source: Rod Boone on Twitter
February 18, 2020, 7:18 pmDamian LillardPG, Portland Trail Blazers
Coach Terry Stotts said that he wouldn't put a timetable on when star point guard Damian Lillard (right groin strain) would return, but he is expected to be re-evaluated on Tuesday or Wednesday.
Lillard was given a timetable of 1-2 weeks last Wednesday, as the All-Star break came at an ideal time. Lillard has a shot to avoid any missed time if his re-evaluation shows progress, but owners should prepare for a scenario in which he misses a handful of games. The Blazers have five games remaining in February.
Source: NBC Sports
February 18, 2020, 7:12 pmDario SaricPF, Phoenix Suns
The Suns expect Dario Saric (left ankle) to be available to play against the Raptors on Friday.
James Jones said that he expects everyone outside ok Frank Kaminsky to be available for Friday's game, meaning Tyler Johnson will be out there as well. While Saric has been out, Mikal Bridges has seen his role expand while Kelly Oubre Jr. has played a lot of PF. Keep an eye on how the rotation shakes out now that the Suns are healthy shakes out.
Source: Kellan Olson on Twitter
February 18, 2020, 7:08 pmAron BaynesC, Phoenix Suns
James Jones said that he expects Aron Baynes (left hip soreness) to be available for Friday's game against the Raptors.
Baynes will be joining Deandre Ayton and the rest of the injured Suns' players in returning for this one. Baynes hasn't played in roughly a month and should be seeing a minimal role off the bench down the stretch. He can be left on the waiver wire unless something happens to Ayton.
Source: Kellan Olson on Twitter
February 18, 2020, 7:03 pmDeandre AytonC, Phoenix Suns
James Jones said that he expects Deandre Ayton (left ankle soreness) to be available to play against the Raptors on Friday.
Ayton missed a few games to close out the first half, but it looks like the second-year big man will be good to go when the Suns return to action. Ayton was putting up top-12/16 per-game value in 9/8 cat leagues in the 13 games before going down, and owners have to be ecstatic to get him back in their lineups. Cheick Diallo will revert to a deep reserve role.
Source: Kellan Olson on Twitter
February 18, 2020, 6:58 pmCody MartinPF, Charlotte Hornets
Cody Martin (concussion protocol) fully participated in Tuesday's practice session.
Martin found himself in the starting lineup before going down a few weeks ago, as he has started to earn a bigger role in coach James Borrego's rotation. With Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist out of the picture, Martin should have a reasonably safe role for the second half of the season.
Source: Rick Bonnell on Twitter
February 18, 2020, 6:49 pmClint CapelaC, Atlanta Hawks
Clint Capela (right heel) did not participate in Tuesday's practice.
Capela doesn't have a specific target date as he continues to fight the heel issue. With Capela out, Dewayne Dedmon will continue to absorb the bulk of minutes at C with Damian Jones backing him up. Over his past four games, Dedmon has averaged 8.8 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals, 3.8 blocks and 1.0 trey in 28.3 minutes per game.
Source: Chris Kirschner on Twitter
February 18, 2020, 6:43 pmOtto Porter Jr.SF, Chicago Bulls
Otto Porter Jr. (left foot fracture) returned to Bulls practice on Tuesday.
Porter added that he felt good and will return to game action when is 100 percent healthy. It was being reported earlier this week that Porter is eyeing a return before the end of the month, and this would be in line with that projection. It is unclear what type of minutes Porter can handle down the stretch, but his versatile skillset makes for an upside stash in fantasy circles.
Source: K.C. Johnson on Twitter
February 18, 2020, 6:37 pmWendell Carter Jr.C, Chicago Bulls
Wendell Carter Jr. (right ankle sprain) resumed practicing on Tuesday as he eyes a return to game action.
Carter is hopeful of playing when the Bulls return to action against the Hornets on Thursday. The Bulls may take a cautious approach and let him get in a few more practices before clearing him, but Carter's arrow is pointing straight up right now. If he is lingering on your league's waiver wire, go grab him.
Source: K.C. Johnson on Twitter