Western Conference Finals preview

 USATSI

USATSI

The Houston Rockets fulfilled their destiny by finding their way to the Western Conference Finals. It seemed like this was bound to happen since the trade sent Chris Paul to Houston, but along the way they exceeded expectations by winning the west, and getting James Harden to play at an MVP level with an all-time point guard beside him.

Now they face the Golden State Warriors with the NBA Finals on the line, and unlike past playoff matchups, the Rockets expect to win.

They’ve been targeting Golden State for years, this season especially. In their opening night matchup, the Rockets came back from down 14 in the fourth quarter to steal the win on ring night, and when a KD jumper was called no good on replay, the Rockets did all but pop the champagne. But now they’re ready for the real bubbly, at least they believe they are, and that’s a huge part of being a title contender.

The Rockets have a vastly different mindset as a team, and that’s a credit to their player development and coaching. Harden doesn’t get caught sleeping on defense anymore, CP3 has smoothly transitioned into a secondary ball-handler, and Clint Capela is playing his role the way Dwight Howard never did during his time in Houston. It’s reminiscent of the Warriors when they play hard every night. It’s the focus of a team that’s finding out they have some chops. Unfortunately for them, they’ll have to go through the big dogs.

The Warriors are looking at this series quite different than Houston is. They’ve gone to hell and back in the playoffs, but they’ve also got a lot more chemistry than the Rockets. They’ll probably end up screwing around and start Javale to match up with Capela because they know their margin of error is the highest in the league. It really comes down to the talent, and Golden State wins that battle.

With Klay Thompson most likely guarding Harden, it sets up for a CP3-Steph match-up, conjuring up memories and emotions from when the Clipper-Warriors rivalry was at its peak. CP3’s instinct may take over where he’ll feel the need to go at Steph, but I think he can be much more effective in the rhythm of their offense. Steph has added muscle to be able to hold his own in defensive switches in the pick and roll, but Paul comes into this series as a much healthier player, and with some momentum after that crazy 40/10 closeout performance vs. Utah in the semifinal. He’s going to try to get Steph out of the game whenever he can, goating him into making mistakes in 1 on 1 defense, but in the end, Curry’s output on offense should win the individual match-up.

Another intriguing match-up is Harden vs. Kevin Durant. While they won't be guarding each other much this series, they’re the best scoring options on their respective teams. Houston simply cannot guard KD 1 on 1. Durant can shoot over, dribble past, and finish on anyone, Trevor Ariza included, and while Harden lacks the height that KD brings to the table, he’s gotten into peak physical shape which has elevated his game to MVP levels. Most likely, we’ll see various actions to get Harden running downhill off the pick and roll. The Rockets love their pick-and-roll sets where Capela immediately uses a downscreen from a shooter (Eric Gordon, for ex.) who can pop out for three. The Warriors defense will formulate a gameplan, preemptively switching the defenders involved, but it’ll require a series long focus. If Harden runs the Dubs tired, it could mean a game to the Rockets.

There's no question that the Rockets give the Warriors the best challenge they've seen in the playoffs. For the first time in the Steve Kerr era, the Warriors won’t have home court advantage, and will have to play a Game 7 on the road if the series stretches that far. Game one could be the closest of them all, as the Warriors come in looking to steal home court & Houston's momentum. One thing I'm sure of is this: the winner of this series will win the NBA title.

Dubs in Fo’