It’s the series every NBA fan wants to see, expects to see and deserves to see, the Golden State Warriors vs. the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals. Very few people, including myself, are willing to pick the Rockets to defeat the Warriors in the playoffs, but there are are five major advantages the Rockets have over the defending champions.
Advantage No. 1: Hunger And The 2011 Dallas Mavericks
Desperation and hunger can bring out the best in a team and cause them to elevate their level of play.
The Golden State Warriors are the most talented team in the league and one of the most talented teams in NBA history, four of their starters are likely future Hall Of Famers. However, when an NBA team is talented and desperate they can elevate their level of play and overcome an opponent with superior talent.
It happened in 2011 when the most talented team in the NBA, the Miami Heat, were defeated in the NBA Finals by a hungry Dallas Mavericks team. Nobody on the entire Dallas roster had won a championship and the desperation showed throughout their run. Dallas swept the Los Angeles Lakers, who had won the championship the two previous seasons, and defeated the superior talented Miami team in the Finals.
A hungry team also benefits from having the best player in the NBA during a playoff run. During the 2011 playoffs Dirk Nowitzki was the best player in the world and it’s not too far fetched to think James Harden, who will likely win the MVP this season, can be the best player in the league during the 2017-18 playoffs.
The Rockets have one player on their entire roster who has won a championship, Trevor Ariza with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009, and Harden who has the talent to carry a hungry team like Nowitzki did in 2011.
Hunger + Harden= Advantage No. 1
Advantage No. 2: The Bench
Golden State has been the best team in the NBA for over three seasons mainly because of their elite starting five, but in the playoffs their elite play off the bench has been pivotal.
Andre Iguodola, the best player off the Warriors bench the last three-plus seasons, was the MVP of the Finals in 2015. Other guys such as Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa, Marreese Speights, David West, Festus Ezili and David Lee have given the Warriors the best depth in the league and made key championship contributions. However, the Golden State bench isn’t what it used to be.
Iguodola is 34-years-old, his athleticism is deteriorating and he’s shooting a career-low 45.9 percent from the field and 25 percent from three-point range. Further down the pine, Livingston has shown signs of aging, West is pushing 40 and does anyone trust Nick Young to come up big in the playoffs? On the other hand, the Rockets have arguably the best bench in the NBA.
The advanced Houston bench statistics are misleading because Eric Gordon, last year’s NBA Sixth Man Of The Year has only come off the bench in 29 games. Gordon has been forced to start 24 games due to injuries and missed nine games of his own, but that hasn’t stopped the Rockets from leading the Warriors in the standings with 20 games remaining in the regular season.
Gordon is joined on the Houston bench by Luc Mbah a Moute, Nene, Ryan Anderson, Gerald Green, Brandan Wright and the 42nd leading scorer in NBA history, Joe Johnson.
The Warriors bench has been elite the last three seasons, but this season their biggest threat to a third championship has way more depth.
Advantage No. 3: Steph Curry’s Defense
During his tenure as Golden State head coach Steve Kerr has done a great job hiding Steph Curry on defense especially in crucial times. However, that will be very difficult to do against a backcourt consisting of Harden and Chris Paul. Kerr often puts Curry on the inferior offensive threat, but with the Rockets most of the guys on the court can score and most importantly, expose Curry. Harden, Paul or even Gordon can have their way with Curry when he’s guarding them.
Question: Who is Curry guarding in the following scenario?
Tie game with 20 seconds left with Paul, Harden, Gordon, Mbah a Moute and Capela on the court for the Rockets.
Advantage No. 4: Head-To-Head
Advantage No. 4 is simple. The Rockets have beaten the Warriors two out of three times this season and Harden didn’t play in the only game Golden State won.
Advantage No. 5: Capela
Rockets center Clint Capela generated a lot of headlines when he proclaimed the Rockets better than the Warriors. The Rockets might not be better than the Warriors, but Capela is the best center in the matchup and it isn’t close.
Capela is in the conversation for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Of The Year Award. He’s averaging 14.5 points, 11.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per-game, all career highs, and shooting 65 percent from the field.
In the past the Warriors have been able to go small and take centers out of games, but Iguodola’s inability to shoot and stretch the floor when Golden State goes small makes that difficult to do. Combine that with the fact that starting center ZaZa Pachulia is a stiff, who can’t do anything on a basketball court except try to hurt people and Capela poses a matchup problem for the Warriors.
Capela has averaged 15 points against Golden State this season and played 30 and 28 minutes in the last two meetings between the two teams. Unless Pachulia steps on his foot or dives on his knee Capela gives the Rockets a significant advantage in the paint.
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