As the Western Conference Finals approach, roundball fans around the globe are salivating at the glorious matchup the basketball gods have bestowed upon us. Even though, the matchup was seemingly inevitable, there was always a chance that some freak injury or bizarre occurrence could derail what many consider to be the real NBA Finals. Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and the defending champion Golden State Warriors will face off against James Harden, Chris Paul and the Houston Rockets, who finished with the best regular season record in the league.
Whenever playoffs arrive in any sport, there is always much media banter about “bulletin board material.” After all, a good coach or team leader will latch on to any perceived sleight and use it to motivate the team.
Rockets’ center Clint Capela provided the Warriors with some A-1 bulletin board material after the Rockets defeated the Warriors 116-108 on Jan. 20.
"We're confident because we know if we're doing what we're supposed to do, we're going to beat them," he told ESPN.
“We are better than them,” he later added.
Those are big words coming from a player who was just 13-months-old the last time the Rockets advanced to the NBA Finals. But to paraphrase a famous saying, “Well-behaved centers seldom make history.”
As far as the Rockets are concerned, the team doesn’t need a sinister quote or ear-opening soundbite for motivation. All Mike D’Antoni’s team needs to fixate its collective eye upon are the two NBA championship trophies Golden State has earned over the past three seasons and its three consecutive Western Conference championships.
“It’s the only thing we think about,” Rockets GM Daryl Morey admitted on ESPN Radio’s The Ryen Russillo Show. “I think I’m not supposed to say that, but we’re basically obsessed with ‘How do we beat the Warriors?’
It’s no secret that “Mad” Mike and the Rockets have been cooking up ways to out-Warrior the Warriors. When Curry and Klay Thompson began assaulting the three-point record books, D’Antoni’s strategy was to have his team match the output of long-range bombs with the deadliest duo the league has ever seen.
After the Warriors added Durant’s long-range sniping ability to the team, the Rockets upped the ante and began outshooting the Warriors (in three-point attempts) by a wide margin. Last season, the Rockets launched 40.1 three-pointers per game (1st) while the Warriors shot just 31.5 (5th). This season, the Rockets moved up to 42.1 attempts per game (1st) while the Warriors dropped down to 29.0 attempts (16th).
The Warriors have leveled off for efficiency’s sake while nearly every Rockets player besides Capela treats the three-point line like crime scene tape: do not cross.
It’s hard to argue with the results. With Paul on board, the Rockets surged to a league-leading 65 victories. That’s seven more wins than the Warriors. Furthermore, in the regular season head-to-head matchups, Houston emerged victorious 2-to-1. That’s what gave Capela the confidence to boldly proclaim that the Rockets are the top dogs. Now they have to go out and prove it.
Harden, who is expected to be the runaway favorite for regular-season MVP, will do what Harden does. The 6-foot-6 guard is possibly the most-unguardable player in the entire league. His ridiculous blend of handles, strength and shooting ability makes him a nightmare for opposing defenses.
Though this will be Paul’s first-ever appearance in the Western Conference Finals, anybody expecting him to be overmatched or out of his element is plain nuts. CP3 has been waiting for this opportunity his entire career. You can bet your last dollar he’ll be ready to go.
With Harden and Paul, the Rockets have a future Hall of Fame guard on the court at all times. Those guys will continue to get the ball to Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon and the green light gunners. However, it could be Capela’s play that determines whether the Rockets ultimately have enough firepower to shoot down the Warriors.
Against the New Orleans Pelicans, the Warriors debuted it’s “death lineup” aka the “Hamptons 5.” Coach Steve Kerr opted to start Curry, Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Durant and Draymond Green. Should he trot out that lineup again versus the Rockets, that could leave the 6-foot-11 Capela matched up against the 6-foot-7 Green (Before you start, I realize that I’m using the NBA’s bogus height numbers.).
Putting Capela on Green could prove either wildly successful or disastrous. Green often helps facilitate the Warriors offense from the top of the key. Drawing Capela outside the paint, will open up middle, where the Rockets could get gashed for the entire series. That’s dependent on Green being a reliable threat from the three-point line. Otherwise, Capela could sag back to help clog the middle.
Against the Pelicans, Green shot 40 percent from behind the arc. That’s nearly 10 percent higher than his 30.1 percent mark during the regular season.
On the flip side, Capela averaged an impressive 13.0 points, 10.2 assists and 3.6 blocks against the Utah Jazz. However, he matched up against more traditional post men such as Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. Against the Warriors latest lineup, Capela could prove to be a liability. That means the guy who provides rim protection and rebounds the bazillion three-pointers that the Rockets launch per game, could be relegated to the bench until JaVale McGee or David West enter the game.
Obviously, the Warriors future also largely depends on Curry’s health. The two-time MVP missed 37-games (regular-season and playoffs) with ankle and knee injuries. Still, in four games, Curry averaged 24.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and, most importantly, shot 44.1 percent from long range. Against the Rockets, expect those numbers to rise as his conditioning improves and due to the Rockets’ style of play.
The Warriors team has been to the mountaintop (twice) and is unlikely to be caught up in the gravitas of this series. Like Harden, Durant is going to do what Durant does. Not much else needs to be said about his expected contributions.
I expect the Rockets to give the champs a run for the money, but in the end, a healthy Warriors team in nearly unbeatable. Four current All-Stars and the 2015 Finals MVP in the starting lineup will be too much for The Beard and his merry band of sharpshooters.
Prediction: Golden State Warriors win in 6
Follow Ishmael and In the Clutch on Twitter @ishcreates.