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.