Rockets aim to finally knock off rival Warriors Global on Apr 28, 2019 08:12 AM
Rockets aim to finally knock off rival Warriors
HOUSTON, TX - MARCH 13 : Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors defends against James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets on March 13, 2019 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

By Shaun Powell,

The Houston Rockets made the Golden State Warriors sweat bullets in the 2018 Western Conference finals, and bring a pair of All-Stars who can cause trouble once again. Meanwhile, the two-time defending champion Warriors are seemingly less than perfect after a shaky first-round ouster of the LA Clippers.

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Star power in this series abounds with James Harden, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Chris Paul all here. Both teams suffered first-round hiccups, but aside from no DeMarcus Cousins for Golden State, they enter this series healthy.

But like last spring’s series, this one will be largely affected by one factor: can the Rockets hit their three-pointers? If they can, the Warriors could be confronted by their biggest threat in the Steve Kerr era since the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers. If they can’t, this will be over quickly.

If the Rockets can make a respectable amount of three-pointers and do so with efficiency, the Warriors will be pressed into matching that firepower. It’s a make-or-miss league once the playoffs begin and nowhere is that more true than in this series.

The Rockets are dead set on their style of play: Harden in isolation and spread floor … or bust. The Warriors, meanwhile, are all about setting screens and star power. That has served them well for five-plus playoff runs. Is there any reason to think it won’t serve them well in this series? That’s up to Houston to decide.

Harden and Paul are too good to not have a championship by now, and it’s not for the lack of trying. The timing of their careers -- plus the Warriors’ dynasty -- has denied them a ring thus far.

No team will be rooting for a Durant free agency defection from the Warriors this summer more than Houston. But that’s about next year. How about now?

Three things to watch

1.Will the Warriors copy Utah’s method for defending James Harden? Harden insists he’s seen every defense known to man. But in the first round, the Jazz offered a twist. A defender was attached to Harden’s left hip and shadowed him on his strong side. The idea was to minimize his left hand, force him right and hope for the best. It worked to a degree as the league’s top scorer in the regular season shot 36 percent in the first round. That won’t work against the Warriors.

2. Can Paul finally rise to the occasion? He’s headed to the Hall of Fame someday. Will he bring a championship ring with him? This isn’t a make-or-break year for Paul in that regard, but he’s not getting any younger and his body remains suspect until proven otherwise. Paul has reached one conference final in his career. A big performance against the Warriors, coupled with good health and a win, will go a long way to repair his reputation for coming up short.

3. Will the Warriors’ two-headed center overcome the Rockets’ one? Golden State received positive vibes in the paint from Andrew Bogut and Kevon Looney late in the regular season. But the Clippers’ Montrezl Harrell devoured them in the first round. Bogut does bring a defensive presence and Looney is active on the pick and roll (and a willing mid-range shooter). Their goal is to limit Rockets center Clint Capela’s lob-catching and impact on the series and keep Houston from having a Big Three.

The number to know

5-for-30 -- During the three years since they acquired Kevin Durant, when you include postseason games, no team has a winning record against the Warriors. But two teams are .500 against the champs over that time: The Boston Celtics are 3-3 and the Rockets are 9-9. While Boston has outscored the Warriors by 4.3 points per 100 possessions over their six games, the Rockets have been outscored by 3.3 over their 18 meetings with Golden State. Five of the Warriors' wins have been by double-digits and in last year's conference finals, they won Game 2 by 29 points and Game 5 by 41.

The Rockets have had the advantage in close games; Over the last three years, they're 7-3 in games against the Warriors that were within five points in the last five minutes. Houston's success in those games is less about their own shooting and more about how the Warriors have shot in the clutch.

Against Houston over the last three years, Golden State, the best three-point shooting team in the league, is 5-for-30 (17 percent) from three-point range with the score within five points in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime. Stephen Curry (4-for-13) and Draymond Green (1-for-2) are responsible for all five of the makes, while Kevin Durant (0-for-7) and Klay Thompson (0-for-6) have come up empty from beyond the arc in those situations.

Against all other opponents over the last three years, Golden State has shot 37 percent from three-point range in those situations. Curry is 40-for-87 (46 percent), Durant is 23-for-54 (43 percent), and Thompson is 22-for-67 (33 percent).

-- John Schuhmann,

The pick

More than any other team in the West, this is the one that spooks the Warriors the most. Houston may be the only squad capable of shaking up Golden State. That alone is why the Rockets won’t win this series. The Warriors can’t be caught off-guard and won’t look beyond Houston as they did against the Clippers. A motivated Warriors team is a dangerous one and perhaps an unbeatable one as well. Look for Durant, Curry and Thompson to take turns coming up big at various points, more than the Rockets can handle. Warriors in 6.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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