May 13, 2018, 12:45 pm
Clint Capela wasted no time meeting Steph Curry beyond the arc. The Golden State Warriors superstar had just used a brush screen from Draymond Green a few feet past halfcourt, goading a switch from the Houston Rockets’ anonymous backup center, who just five weeks earlier was playing with the G-League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers. But with time winding down in the first half of Game 1 of the 2015 Western Conference Finals, Capela hardly looked out of place defending the newly-minted MVP on the perimeter.
Curry took a hard hesitation dribble to his left, then went back between his legs going the other way. Capela was unfazed. Curry hesitated again before crossing over back his original direction, briefly getting Capela off his feet. Still, as the game’s most dangerous offensive player again dribbled to his left, barely the slightest advantage was gained on Dwight Howard‘s understudy. It didn’t matter. Curry took one last dribble inside the 3-point line, planted backwards hard off his right foot and let fly over the outstretched arm of Capela.
That was three years ago, before the Warriors established themselves as a dynasty with no end in sight, and before the Rockets realized they were going nowhere with Howard as James Harden‘s sidekick. Much has changed in the interim, but as these teams finally embark on a Western Conference Finals matchup that’s seemed inevitable since November, one constant looms largest: Capela’s ability to make life hard on Curry and his star teammates after getting switched onto the ball.
Houston won two of three meetings with Golden State during the regular season; that lone loss came as both Harden and Kevin Durant watched the action in street clothes. Capela played in all those games, and hardly made the supreme impact he has while thoroughly outplaying Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert through the first two rounds of the playoffs. His net plus-minus against the defending champions in the regular season was an ugly -69, more than double the Rockets’ second-lowest mark, owned by Trevor Ariza. With Capela on the floor, they had an offensive rating of 100.2 and defensive rating of 127.7, per NBA.com/stats.
The normal caveats of small-sample theater apply there. Capela was on the floor for just 73 minutes against Golden State in the regular season, and both teams were missing key contributors in each of their last two contests. Even that thrilling 122-121 win by Houston at Oracle Arena in the season-opener warrants the asterisks of Chris Paul’s injury and ring night, a spectacle Steve Kerr has always maintained takes focus away from the team that’s celebrating a title. Capela is also at the peak of his powers right now, running, dunking and blocking his way to a max contract offer this summer that’s never seemed more deserving.
The Warriors, just by virtue of personnel, have an inherent advantage in this series – and will no matter how Capela performs. If he’s able to play over 30 minutes per game while punishing Golden State on rolls to the rim and the offensive glass, and switch onto the perimeter without sustained negative recourse, Golden State’s edge should be lessened enough for the Western Conference Finals to go long, at which point the follies of shot-making could prove the biggest difference between winner and loser.
Remember when the Hamptons Five, the updated version of the Death Lineup, failed to provide the Warriors its normal jolt throughout the regular season? Perhaps sensing the need to ignite his most important five-man unit, Kerr started the Hamptons Five in Game 4 against the New Orleans Pelicans, and for the duration of the playoffs has been more willing than normal to play the trump card of Draymond Green at center from tipoff.
The result? In 54 minutes against the Pelicans, the quintet of Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Durant and Green has a net rating of +40.9, per NBA.com/stats, easily the league’s best among high-usage lineups in the postseason. Units with Green at center, irrespective of his teammates, boast a +21.6 net rating, indicative of his all-around excellence since Golden State’s real season began in mid April.
Two factors have stuck out most recently when the Warriors downsize: pace and rebounding. It’s a common misconception that the Rockets want to run. A whopping 83 percent of their playoff possessions have come in the halfcourt, according to Cleaning the Glass, second-highest in the playoff field. Harden and Paul still pretty much get whatever they want offensively when the game slows down, and more importantly, a deliberate pace allows Houston to set its defense – especially crucial as Golden State continues pushing the tempo with abandon. The Hamptons Five is playing at a breakneck pace of 114.2, while lineups with Green at center have a pace of 107.7; both are well above New Orleans’ high-water mark of the postseason.
Capela will be instrumental to helping the Rockets control the game. Keeping the Warriors out of the open floor altogether is impossible, but also a task made far easier when the opposition can keep the ball alive after its own misses, and simply pick up the nearest man defensively to put out fires in transition. Golden State leads the league in defensive rebounding percentage during the playoffs; smaller lineups have cleaned the glass better or just as well as the team overall.
There’s no guarantee Capela will create extra possessions for Houston or slow transitions for Golden State. That would be icing on the cake. What really matters is his effectiveness guarding Curry, Durant and Thompson, and most evidence suggests he will be up to that challenge – at least to an extent that forces them into awaiting help defenders or difficult jumpers. The Warriors, by contrast, don’t have a full-time center equipped to defend the Rockets four- and five-out attack.
Zaza Pachulia started against Houston in his team’s 116-108 loss on January 20, and was put through a ringer of screens on and off the ball. He even blitzed Harden and Paul on high pick-and-rolls, forcing them to pick up their dribble before scrambling back to close any openings behind that initial point of attack. Golden State may not play Pachulia at all in the Conference Finals; he’s seen just eight minutes of court time in the playoffs so far. But it’s not like Kevon Looney or David West, the Warriors’ only other centers who have likely been earmarked rotation minutes in the lead up to this series, are much more adept than Pachulia at navigating routine actions like this, either.
Just over a quarter of Green’s postseason minutes so far have come at center. Regardless of whether or not Kerr starts that way in Game 1, expect that ratio to spike considerably against the Rockets, unlocking Golden State’s ability to switch across the floor. When Green is out of the game or needs a respite from the rigors of playing center, Looney will probably get the call. Though nowhere near Capela’s level, he’s still never looked more nimble sliding with ball handlers on the perimeter, and fared well at times playing more traditional ball-screen defense on Harden and Paul in the regular season.
That approach has its limits. Capela is the only non-shooter who will play big minutes for Houston. Committing two to the ball against a team that dots the floor with 3-point shooing naturally leads to breakdowns elsewhere, the type that even the Warriors, with length everywhere and basketball’s premier defensive quarterback barking orders, can’t consistently prevent. Harden and Paul always find them, too.
Those are the conundrums both of these teams present when faced with normal pick-and-roll coverage. Golden State, with five centers on its roster, none of whom possess the two-way dynamism of Capela, will be forced to go that route on occasion. Kerr could always toggle the matchups, stashing non-Draymond centers onto P.J. Tucker or Luc Mbah a Moute while putting a wing/forward on Capela, switching ball screens with Harden and Paul. But that would sap the Warriors’ traditional big men of their chief utility – keeping Capela in check – and also put them in less familiar circumstances of defending the perimeter.
This is where Golden State’s relative lack of depth, and the unbalanced nature of its roster, could come into play. Ideally, Kerr would be able to get away with playing Durant at center for short stints, like he did in last year’s Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. With McCaw injured, Nick Young ineffective and so much already being asked of Iguodala, the Warriors just don’t have the perimeter depth to go even smaller than normal by playing Durant without another big man. Jordan Bell, who was both roasted by Harden and stymied the presumptive MVP on switches in the season-opener, could be dusted off for rotation minutes after only seeing the floor in garbage time last round. He has by far the best chance of any Golden State center to hang with the Rockets’ playmakers, and injects a dose of speed into the game that could get his team out of offensive ruts.
Mike D’Antoni, by contrast, need not adjust his rotation. Ryan Anderson didn’t get off the bench in either of Houston’s last two games with the Utah Jazz; he’ll only be used on an emergency basis in the Conference Finals, called to action when the Rockets need points in a hurry. Otherwise, the only major player-specific question is how much D’Antoni plays Nené behind Capela, or if he goes without a backup center altogether. Capela’s wind, the Warriors’ personnel and circumstances of time and score will inform that answer more than anything else. Nené’s role will be small regardless.
After playing Mbah a Moute and Tucker up front for 130 minutes during the regular season, to the tune of a +36.1 net rating, per NBA.com/stats, D’Antoni has rolled out that look for just five minutes so far in the playoffs. Odds are that total is surpassed by the end of Game 1, and maybe even by halftime. The Warriors feast on cuts and screens away from the ball, creasing the paint through flow rather than isolation before making it rain from deep as help defenders crash to the rim. By cutting Nené’s minutes and switching everything as often as possible, Houston can wall off the interior, forcing Golden State away from the beautiful game it prefers toward isolation after isolation.
That was a surefire way to frustrate the Warriors two years ago, but not today. The Rockets have a collection of plus defenders to throw at Durant, coming in all shapes and sizes. Ariza, Tucker, Mbah a Moute, Capela and Paul, a mighty mite post defender, each have the goods to bother Durant when all-court switching bogs down Golden State’s offense. Houston, under the tutelage of de facto defensive coordinator Jeff Bzdelik, has mastered the art of leaving streaky shooters on the weak side to crowd would-be driving lanes when an opposing star’s eyes light up at a perceived mismatch. Like every Warriors opponent this time of year dating back to 2015, the Rockets will force Green and Iguodala, shooting 33.3 percent and 38.5 percent on catch-and-shoot triples in the playoffs, respectively, to make them pay from beyond the arc.
The same goes for the Warriors with regard to Tucker and Mbah a Moute. Those guys figure to be heavily involved in ball-screen action, too, since either is a hiding spot for Curry defensively. Golden State has grown remarkably adroit at pre-switching off the ball, after the playmaker calls for a pick from the man Curry is guarding. Even so, the Warriors can’t count on orchestrating that difficult dance every single possession. Curry won’t be able to avoid getting caught on Harden or Paul by hedging with long-arm shows like he routinely did against LeBron James last June, either; they’ll just stop early behind the screen, set their feet and launch threes. Kerr could also just ask Curry to switch every now and then. He’s as lost as anybody on an island against Harden, but doesn’t face the same physical disadvantages when Paul sizes him up.
Harden, meanwhile, doesn’t have a hiding place at all. Houston would always rather switch than rotate, and the Warriors penchant for pushing after makes and misses leads to frequent cross matches anyway. Harden has no chance staying in front of a healthy Curry, but the two-time MVP is still a ways from 100 percent coming off a knee injury that caused him to miss all of March and April. Maybe Curry, a beat slower than normal, doesn’t have the burst the to consistently beat defenders like Harden, Capela and Eric Gordon. Durant, though, doesn’t need peak quick-twitch athleticism to produce good looks. Even when the Rockets snuff out the elbow splits and flare screens Golden State loves to run off post-ups, Durant can just shoot over the top of his defender.
The Warriors would rather not resort to the mano-a-mano offensive approach that’s worked so well for the Rockets. But it’s almost June; time to allow the process to manifest itself grows shorter and shorter by the day. Results are all that matters now, and no team in league history has switched with such frequency and proficiency as Houston.
In crunch time, when Golden State needs a bucket, it will make much more sense to give Durant a touch with his side of the floor cleared rather than try to free Thompson for the sliver of space needed to hit a 3-pointer on the move.
That’s a luxury the Rockets don’t have. Harden and Paul expend far more energy than Durant does to produce similarly efficient attempts. When one of the Warriors’ leading scorers has an off night, there are always two star teammates available to pick up that slack. Bringing in Paul helped lighten the load Harden has to carry, but both players still shoulder bigger offensive burdens than their fellow luminaries wearing blue and gold.
Houston was built to beat Golden State. The Warriors, on the other hand, wrote the blueprint three years ago that led to these Rockets, the most formidable foe the reigning champions have ever faced in the Kerr era – including the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers, the only team to ever beat them.
“Frankly, we spend most of our time just figuring out how we might just knock the Warriors out in seven games,” Daryl Morey said in December. “Because we’re pretty sure that’s what’s going to define our season.”
The Rockets are underdogs for a reason. They’re lacking in terms of both talent and continuity, and don’t play an offensive style that naturally combats the switch-everything defense each of these teams employs. The overarching narrative surrounding Harden and Paul’s postseason reputations is mostly nonsense, but born from multiple moments of ineptitude over multiple years. Harden has never faced a team with so many defenders who believe they can guard him, and Paul’s vaunted mid-range game, so key against Utah, will mostly be taken away by all-court switching.
Houston needs a majority of the factors that hang in the balance to tilt its way, and none of them matter quite so much as the influence of Capela. If he’s the same player he’s been throughout the postseason, this series will go six or seven games – with either team emerging victorious. Should the speed, knack and shooting of Golden State prove too much for Capela, though, it could be over much sooner than the Rockets’ historic regular season suggests it will be.
“They are taking the challenge and they’re embracing it,” Kerr said last week of his team’s reaction to Houston’s success. “But we seem to be at our best when we are threatened. That’s been kind of the M.O. of this team, and we’re definitely threatened.”
But there’s a fine line between being threatened and being dethroned. The Warriors will reach a fourth consecutive NBA Finals, but it’s hard to believe the Rockets will make it easy.
GOLDEN STATE IN SEVEN