Earlier this year, I dismissed the Rockets’ title hopes. But the Rockets team I wrote about then is literally nothing like the current Rockets team. Here are five radical ways in which the Rockets have changed from the team that the Warriors dominated in the regular season, and what it means for this playoff series:
1) Dwight Howard: The first thing that’s going to happen in this series is that Dwight Howard is going to eat Andrew Bogut alive. After watching Howard against the Clippers, I’m almost certain of this.
That’s what used to happen back in the day, back when both centers were fully healthy. Howard was just too quick and athletic for Bogut. Bogut couldn’t stay in front of him, couldn’t run with him. And on the other end of the floor, Bogut just didn’t have the skills or the will to exploit his size advantage. He’s never been that player.
I didn’t know at the time that the Howard I observed at midseason was just days from going back under the knife, but I was completely convinced that his knee was killing him. I saw a joyless player who was completely unable to protect the rim. That’s emphatically not the Howard I saw in the Clippers series. His bounce is back, and his joy. I saw the rim protector of old, and the guy who could post 20 and 15s against a monster front line, with a stretch four by his side. The guy who could effortlessly run the floor. That spells trouble for Bogut, in the best of times.
But what of Bogut’s health? I think it’s reasonable to have some concerns here. I think Bogut has always been an extremely good defender one-on-one against Zach Randolph. Too big to be bullied, too long to shoot over, and just quick enough to be able to keep Randolph in front of him. Bogut ate him up during the regular season. And in Game 1 of the playoff series.
But that changed radically in Game 2. Suddenly, I saw Randolph getting around Bogut with ease, and turning the tables. And I saw Ron Adams forced in Game 4 to come up with a “gimmick” defense from the Don Nelson archives to save Bogut from a matchup he couldn’t handle — with Barnes and Green fronting the Grizzlies’ big men, and Bogut, guarding no one, banging with no one, held in reserve.
Did that happen because Bogut never really could guard Randolph after all, or because Randolph suddenly figured Bogut out? Or did it happen because Bogut suddenly weakened? There were rumors floated around that Bogut tweaked his back in Game 1. I don’t know about that, but I did sit up and pay attention when it was reported that Bogut went for an MRI on his knee mid-series. Was that the same knee that caused him to take an unscheduled rest in the middle of the season? The knee that he got the Iggy…. errrrr…. Kobe treatment on?
I’m a little bit concerned about Bogut right now, and that 3 rebound total in the last Grizzlies game did little to allay those concerns. I think it’s highly likely he’s going to get dominated by Dwight Howard in this series.
Particularly if Howard’s coach continues to get this right:
2) Pick and Roll v. Low Post Offense: I had to rub my eyes in disbelief during Game 7 of the Rockets-Clippers. I don’t think Kevin McHale posted up Howard a single time. Not one single time. What I saw was pick and roll after pick and roll after pick and roll. I think the Rockets ran PNR literally 90% of the time.
I never thought it could happen. Kevin McHale was one of the greatest low-post players of all time. Hakeem Olajuwon, who’s virtually on the staff of the Rockets, and works closely with Howard, was one of the greatest low-post players of all time. And Dwight Howard strongly prefers to play in the low-post himself, so much so that he fiercely resisted the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play pick and roll with Steve Nash.
I never thought that Kevin McHale could persuade Howard to forsake the low post for pick and roll. I never thought that it would even occur to McHale to do that. Which is one of the main reasons I thought the Rockets would never get it together under his leadership.
But if it’s now true that Howard is ready to team up with James Harden in a pick and roll offense, if what I saw in the Clippers series carries over to this series, the Warriors are in for big trouble.
Because pick and roll is the Warriors’ Achilles heel. And it’s Andrew Bogut’s Achilles heel in particular: The immobile Bogut can’t leave the lane to hedge without getting torched. But if he doesn’t leave the lane to hedge on James Harden… the whole Warriors defense will have to get involved.
And that will open up a smorgasbord of opportunities for James Harden, point guard extraordinaire, should he care to come out and play.
3) James Harden: I have written a couple of times this season, in the context of the MVP race, about the difference between Stephen Curry and James Harden in leadership. About how selfishly Harden played in his first four games against the Warriors this season, about his failure to make his teammates better when his own offense was being taken away.
This issue seemingly came to a head in Game 6 against the Clippers, when Harden rode the bench for the entire fourth quarter, and had a ringside seat as his teammates rallied for one of the greatest comebacks in NBA playoff history. Without him.
Was that game James Harden’s revelation in the desert? Because the Harden I watched in Game 7 against the Clippers was seemingly a completely different player. This was a Harden who was determined to trust his teammates, and was simply superb at finding and setting them up. This Harden was the apotheosis of James Harden: one of the very best pick and roll point guards in the league, when he chooses to be.
The Warriors are going to take away James Harden’s scoring, of that you can be sure. He will be faced with his nemesis, Klay Thompson, the man who guards him better than anyone else in the league, the man who is long enough to challenge his step-back three, who simply stones every one of his head and ball fakes, who never reaches on his drives, and knows exactly how to guide him into the waiting arms of Andrew Bogut.
Which James Harden will show up against the Warriors’ suffocating defense? The egotistical James Harden who — perhaps determined to put on an MVP show against his chief rival — fell flat on his face in the first four Warriors games, and dragged his team down with him? Or the selfless leader who lifted his teammates against the Clippers in Game 7, and who possesses exactly the right combination of skills in the pick and roll to slice and dice the Warriors defense to shreds?
4) The Battle of the Stretch Fours: Another radical difference between the Rockets of the regular season, and the Rockets the Warriors will face now, is this: During the regular season, the Rockets played the 6-11 Donatis Motiejunas at power forward, which of course afforded the Warriors the traditional Nellieball-four speed advantage, as well as the spacing advantage. Draymond Green frolicked, and the Warriors offense did their thing.
That’s not what the Warriors are getting now. The Warriors are now, for the first time in these playoffs, face to face with another Nellieball team. The Rockets have two stretch-fours of their own to match up with Draymond Green and Playoff Barnes: Terrence Jones, back from injury, and Josh Smith, added at mid-season and now fully integrated. And as of Game 5 against the Clippers, inserted into the starting lineup.
The battle between Smith and Draymond for supremacy will be fascinating. The Josh Smith of old was one of the premier defenders in the league. He’s fallen off considerably, but showed flashes of his old form in the last series. He (and Howard) held Blake Griffin to 0-4 in the final quarter of the pivotal Game 6. The Josh Smith of old was even more athletic than Draymond: he could out-jump him and out-run him, and he could stay in front of him on the perimeter. Does Smith have enough in the tank to take Draymond on with his own weapons?
If not, Terrence Jones might. The greatly underrated Jones is also extremely athletic, and he’s longer than both Dray and Smith.
But where this matchup will really get interesting is on the other end of the floor. Smith has been ridiculed in the past for taking three point shots, but the Darryl Morey-led Rockets have been fine with him hoisting them, and he responded in the Clippers series by hitting an eye-opening 36% from three. Jones struggled against the Clippers, but hit 35% from three in the regular season.
The Warriors might be content to simply let Green play off Smith and Jones, and play rover. But if Smith and Jones succeed in pulling Dray out to the three point line, Bogut will be left on an island in the Warriors middle against Howard, and…
this series could get very, very interesting.
5) The Stephen Curry Problem: There is one way in which this Rockets team has gotten worse than the team the Warriors crushed in the regular season: they lost noted Curry torturer Patrick Beverley to injury. Beverley is one of the most tenacious point guard defenders in the league, and he gave Curry fits at times. He has been replaced in the Rockets’ lineup with Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni, who are quite possibly the league’s worst defenders. So major downgrade, and a very significant problem for a Rockets team coming up against the league MVP at the point guard position.
I’m certain we’ll see quite a bit of blitzing — always a profitable tactic when Andrew Bogut is on the floor — but I simply don’t see how the Rockets can stick with Terry or Prigioni on Curry. It’s an invitation to have 50 points dropped on your head, on 60% shooting.
Obviously, a crossmatch is indicated, and the obvious candidate to switch onto Curry is Trevor Ariza, who guarded Chris Paul down the stretch in the Clippers series. But will McHale have the gumption to do that to start the game? That creates other problems: Harden on Klay Thompson, and Terry/Prigioni on Playoff Barnes. (We could be in for another monster series from Playoff Barnes, fresh off his resounding success against a Grizzlies defense that attempted to hide Courtney Lee and Zach Randolph against him, when they guarded him at all. Which means that my comments section will once again hum to the trilling of thrilling trolls.)
My own solution to The Stephen Curry Problem, were I Kevin McHale, would be to bench Terry and Prigioni for Corey Brewer. Sacrifices ball-handling, to be sure, but James Harden is the real point-guard of the Rockets. Risks exhausting Harden, yes. But look what it gives you: the one tried and true method of shutting down Curry and Klay in the playoffs: length at every position. PLAYOFF LENGTH. Corey Brewer is long, and a hell of a defender. Like Trevor Ariza he can get to both Curry and Klay’s shot. Like Trevor Ariza, he can get his shot off against the Warriors’ own playoff length. He’s also been playing out of his mind. I’d play him, and hide Harden on Playoff Barnes.
Kevin McHale has the tools to make this a series. Does he have the chops?
MORE THEMES AND MEMES:
Smallball v Smallball: Since Andrew Bogut is apparently only good for 24 minutes a game, Steve Kerr has so far in these playoffs relied extensively on the Draymond at five, Barnes at four lineup. And so far, that lineup has rocked.
Will it rock against a Howard/Smith or Howard/Jones frontline? I’m not so sure. All of those players have the chops to punish the Warriors’ smalls down low, and they have the athleticism to guard the Warriors on the other end as well.
But what if McHale decides to match up small against the Warriors? Do Draymond and Barnes have the edge against Smith/Jones and Trevor Ariza?
Again, I’m not so sure. I don’t think Barnes is in Ariza’s class. I think Ariza would turn him into Regular Season Barnes, pronto.
Hack-a-Howard v Hack-a-Bogut: I read yesterday that Steve Kerr dined with his mentor Gregg Popovich in San Francisco after the Grizzlies series ended. Not surprising to me: NBA coaches often bring in other coaches for help during the playoffs, and who better for Kerr to rely on than one of the greatest coaches of all time? Just as Pop himself has frequently brought in his own mentor, Don Nelson.
(It’s also not surprising in view of the fact that it was Pop who clued Ron Adams in to that killer Game 4 defensive adjustment that swung the Grizzlies series in the Warriors favor — as Ron Adams admitted, and Greg Papa reported on radio. Pop used that same defense to beat the Grizzlies a few years back. And – as Papa also noted – Pop got that defense from his own mentor, Don Nelson. Nellie used that fronting, double the post defense all the time, most memorably for me with Al Harrington fronting Yao Ming. Harrington looked like a miniature doll in that matchup.
Back then, this defense was derisively termed a “gimmick defense” by the hacks at the Merc. Remember that? And did anyone check to see whether they trotted out this term again after the Warriors’ triumph? Mmmmm. Well. I didn’t think so.
But I digress. To sum up, and paraphrase the great Mark Jackson: Don Nelson has his hands on this Warriors team.)
So what do you think was at the top of the agenda for Kerr’s little powwow with Pop? My guess would be the Hack-a-Shaq, at which Pop is an acknowledged master. (As was his mentor, the pioneer of the strategy, Don Nelson.) I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Kerr haul this strategy out against Dwight Howard. He may very well be forced to, if I’m right about how Bogut will match up against Howard. Pop was forced to hack DeAndre Jordan in the first half during the Spurs-Clippers series, to give his aged and injured team a much needed break. But as I’ve previously discussed, it’s a strategy that’s much better reserved for late in the game, when trailing.
And what about Hack-a-Bogut? During the Memphis series I finally snapped to the reason why the Hack-a-Bogut has so rarely been deployed against the Warriors this season, and post-season. It’s because the Warriors are almost never in the bonus. And the number of times that Bogut is still on the floor when the Warriors do reach the bonus is less than never.
Hack-a-Howard (Smith) could be a major theme of this series. Hack-a-Bogut (Iggy), not so much.
The Festus Factor: This is a series in which Festus Ezeli is going to play a major role. Particularly given the fact of Mo Speights’ calf injury, an injury that is notoriously tricky and slow to heal.
I think Festus is up to the challenge. His power, athleticism and defensive IQ will be extraordinarily useful.
On offense, Festus gets to play pick and roll, while David Lee does not. Have you noticed? I recently twigged to the reason. It’s because David Lee is skilled enough to play Kerr’s preferred offense, while Festus is not. Lee can fill the high-post and the mid-post, make the right picks, deliver the dribble handoff, swing the ball along to the next player, and trot on over to the vacated spot on the floor, to await the return pass that rarely comes, and then only when the lane is fully clogged with confused opponents…
If I don’t stop digressing, this post will never end.
How to Bet: Given the long litany I just recited of things Warriors fans should be concerned about in this series, it might surprise you to know that I’m certain the Warriors will find a way to win. Let’s remember the bedrock reasons why the Warriors are so much better than the Rockets: They have better coaching, by far. They are one of the highest IQ teams in league history. One of the most unselfish and best passing teams in league history. They have, without a doubt, the best shooting backcourt in league history. They have the best defense in the league this season.
And they have the intangibles and leadership of the One True MVP.
The Warriors are going to prevail. The problem, for Warriors bettors, is getting a sensible bet down. I have heard that the Warriors are 11-1 favorites in some places in Las Vegas. The line I’m looking at online has the Warriors at -700, with the Rockets returning +450 (and that disgraceful spread, in a nutshell, is how bookies make money off suckers).
Those odds are way too much for me to fade. Particularly because of my worries about Andrew Bogut. Would you be willing to lay 7-1 odds that Bogut survives this matchup intact? You see the problem.
I counsel preserving one’s bullets, and awaiting opportunity.
Like the Warriors against the Grizzlies in Game 6, giving 5 points.
(I’d like to thank all those in the media who helped make that line possible. You know who you are.)