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
June 2, 2020, 10:02 pmCorey BrewerSF, Sacramento Kings
Corey Brewer, a veteran of eight different NBA teams, is still hoping to sign another contract before he calls it a career.
Brewer, 34, seems to think he has enough in the tank for one final stint in the NBA. “We had some talks with a few teams, but nothing really happened. My agent is still working on it, so we’ll see,” Brewer said. “I feel like I can still help a team and I feel like I have a few good years left. But you never know, man." Brewer has not suited up for an NBA team this season and, with a waning jump shot and increased age, his chances of securing another pact in the NBA are pretty unlikely.
June 2, 2020, 9:47 pmDeMarcus CousinsC, Los Angeles Lakers
Kings broadcaster Grant Napear stepped down from his position with the Kings on Tuesday after he said 'All Lives Matter..Every Single One!' when asked about his thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement during a Twitter interaction with former Kings center DeMarcus Cousins.
This is the first domino to fall in American professional sports in relation to the Black Lives Matter movement, even if it's a relatively insignificant one. Napear said of himself and the interaction, "I’m not as educated on BLM as I thought I was. I had no idea that when I said 'All Lives Matter' that it was counter to what BLM was trying to get across," he said. "I’m in pain. I’m 60 years old and I still have a lot to learn." The Kings will evidently have to find a new play-by-play man for their radio broadcasts to accompany Doug Christie when games resume.
June 2, 2020, 8:45 pmJohn WallPG, Washington Wizards
John Wall, who has long been rumored to have absolutely zero chance of returning to the court even if the current season is resumed, said in a conference call last week that he feels "110 percent."
Wall and the Wizards both maintain that he will not return to action this season, regardless of the outcome of the vote on Thursday by the NBA Board of Governors. This is good news, obviously, for the team as they set their sights on next season. As of late, trade rumors have been swirling around the franchise's two top assets: Wall and All Star guard Bradley Beal. Moving forward, there is a high possibility that the Wizards will decide between the two, as Beal's contract will expire after next season. Which player will the Wizards keep? Who will they trade, or will they trade them both? They are hoping to have some time to evaluate how the pair plays in tandem early next season, as Wall has missed significant time with a torn left Achilles he suffered during the 2018-19 season. But it may be too late to negotiate an extension with Beal at that point, so they will have to play their cards with extreme care.
Source: The Athletic
June 2, 2020, 8:27 pmBradley BealSG, Washington Wizards
Wes Unseld, a Hall of Famer and Washington Bullets legend, passed away on Tuesday due to complications with pneumonia and other illnesses. He was 74 years old.
An outstanding rebounder, Unseld is also one of only two players to ever be awarded Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in the same season in 1968-69. He guided the Bullets to the NBA Finals four times, winning once in 1978, a series where Unseld took home MVP honors. Hornets' GM and former teammate Mitch Kupchak said of Unseld, “As a teammate, he was tough, dependable and competitive to no end.” Unseld was a fearless competitor and highly respected across the league during his 13 seasons with the Bullets franchise. Former Knicks center and fellow Hall of Famer Willis Reed recently recalled their battles against one another, "He was most consciously a rebounder — he could shoot, but he didn’t emphasize that part of his game — and felt that if he did his job right, by getting the defensive rebound and making the quick outlet pass, they would score quickly.” Unseld was undoubtedly a pioneer for the game of basketball and means a great deal to the city of Washington D.C.
Source: Rick Bonnell on Twitter
June 2, 2020, 7:58 pmLeBron JamesSF, Los Angeles Lakers
ESPN's Adrian Wojanrowski is reporting that Adam Silver and the NBA Board of Governors, who are planning to vote Thursday on how to continue the season, would like the NBA Finals to conclude no later than October 12.
With July 31 being the widely-reported restart date and the league tentatively planning to start 𝘯𝘦𝘹𝘵 season by Christmas Day of this year, it would make sense to crown a league champion as early as possible. The meeting with the NBA Board of Governors on Thursday will (finally) bring some clarity to the rest of the NBA season, as they will hold a vote to decide how to proceed. NBA fans have been waiting since the middle of March for some resolutions. This week will provide them.
Source: Adrian Wojnarowski on Twitter
June 2, 2020, 12:28 pmStephen CurryPG, Golden State Warriors
The Warriors opened their practice facility on Monday, per Anthony Slater of The Athletic.
Slater adds that five players showed up for voluntary workouts. It's the first time that Golden State's gym has been open in over two months, and there are only three teams who have yet to get players back into team facilities. While it must be nice for the players to get back to some kind of business, the Warriors are not expected to be playing any more games this season given their league-worst record and the likelihood that the NBA trims the fat rather than ask every team to play out the season.
Source: Anthony Slater on Twitter
May 31, 2020, 8:10 pmKz OkpalaF, Miami Heat
Kz Okpala's offensive game has come a long way since January according to Heat Vice President and Assistant GM, Adam Simon.
Okpala is already viewed as an NBA-ready defender, and once his offensive game is up to speed the Heat will have a hard time not getting him into the rotation. He spent 20 games in the G League and five with the Heat before the suspension slowed down his progression in 2020. Okpala got off to a slow start due to injuries, and a trade on draft day took away his chance to play in summer league. While this season is unlikely to amount to anything, Okpala is someone to watch in deeper leagues next year.
Source: Miami Herald
May 31, 2020, 8:03 pmGabe VincentPG, Miami Heat
Heat Vice President and Assistant GM, Adam Simon, stated that Gabe Vincent's knee is "good to go".
It sounds like Vincent would have no problem being NBA ready if the Heat decided to call up the two-way guard when play hopefully resumes July 31. Vincent is a strong 3-point shooter with the ability to attack a closeout, but it is still unlikely the Heat will need to put him on the floor for the remainder of the 2019-20 season.
Source: Miami Herald
May 31, 2020, 7:51 pmShake MiltonSG, Philadelphia Sixers
According to projections by Mike O'Connor and Derek Bodner of The Athletic, Shake Milton will be a starter for the Sixers whenever play relaunches.
Milton was thriving for the Sixers when the season was suspended due to COVID-19, and some risk remains that Ben Simmons will bump him from the rotation when the stoppage in play is lifted. In 16 starts with the Sixers, Milton averaged 14.1 points, 2.2 3-pointers, 3.6 assists, 3 rebounds and 1.1 steals. As a 3-pointer specialist along, Milton has earned a slot in 12-team formats, but things are going to be more difficult when he is forced to play off-ball in a fully healthy lineup in Philadelphia
Source: The Athletic
May 31, 2020, 7:42 pmKevin DurantSF, Brooklyn Nets
On a recent ESPN podcast featuring Adrian Wojnarowski and his colleague Zach Lowe, Wojnarowski stated that Kevin Durant (torn Achilles) would not play for the Nets this year.
Wojnarowski went onto say that he had no source that had relayed that information to him. The Nets have largely been deferring to Durant and the medical staff when it comes to his prospects for playing this year. While the organization may get hopeful that KD will lace it up for a playoff run, all signs are still pointing to him waiting until 2020-21.
Source: Anthony Puccio on Twitter