Western Conference Finals Preview: Can the Rockets’ Moreyball beat the Warriors’ Death Lineup?

The Golden State Warriors was viewed as an unstoppable force coming into the season. Literally, and I mean LITERALLY, unstoppable. People were saying, why even bother playing this season out? We all know what’s going to happen come the end of it all anyway. Golden State will lollygag their way into the regular season, then come the playoffs, they’ll flip the switch and you can’t do anything to stop them. If LeBron James and Kyrie Irving couldn’t stop them, who could?

Fast forward to May 2018, and the Warriors suddenly find themselves in a series against a worthy opponent. The statistics say they’re a similar force to the Warriors, one with a high-octane offense and a defense built like a “fucking wall” (shouts to Stan Van Gundy). The Houston Rockets look like a team built to match the Warriors shot per shot.

But the eye test tells us a different story. The Golden State Warriors look like the Beautiful Game on Steroids. On the other hand, the Rockets look like an isolation savant’s dream, again, on Steroids. It’s a clash between a pass happy offense versus a system that gives brilliant individuals maximum control. This isn’t David versus Goliath. It’s a clash of the titans.

Let’s break the match-up down by answering some key questions:

Can Golden State defend the Chris Paul and James Harden isolations?

What makes the Rockets’ attack different from Golden State’s is how they utilize so much isolations with their offense. Their system makes sure to take advantage of the individual talents of both James Harden (arguably the best isolation player in the league today) and Chris Paul (one of the best playmakers of all time).

It sounds counter intuitive the pace and space movement that’s being employed today, but it’s a system that works because of how brilliant Harden and Paul are at creating their offense from the top of the key. In theory, it SHOULD be easy to defend. But Harden and Paul are so skilled at creating separation and drawing fouls that it’s close to impossible to stop whatever they want to do from the top of the key.

There is a way around this though, as shown by how Dante Exum defended James Harden in the Western Conference Semifinals matchup between the Rockets and the Utah Jazz.

During Game 2 of that series, Exum played hard, physical defense, forcing Harden into tough stepbacks like the one above. Exum is the kind of long, nimble athlete that’s tailor-made to stop someone like Harden. Granted, in that game, Harden still scored 32 points while tallying 11 assists. But that kind of production was hard-earned, not the effortless kind of performance we’d come to expect from a talent like Harden.

It’s a different chore to defend Paul isolations, but the formula is essentially the same when it comes to playing defense against him. Stick a lengthy defender against the miniscule Paul, and he’s probably going to have a difficult time producing for himself, and for his team.

Golden State just has the kind of length that can disrupt whatever both playmakers can create for Houston. Andre Igoudala and Klay Thompson are two of the best wing defenders in the league, ones who have the length and Basketball IQ to defend the best of the NBA. Kevin Durant and Draymond Green are more than capable of switching onto Paul and Harden as well off pick and rolls, both nimble forwards who have the foot speed to keep in step with the isolatons, and the length to catch-up any time the guards blow by them.

It will be a tough task to try and defend Harden and Paul. But can Golden State do it? For sure. They have just the right amount of length and personnel to try and deter the Rockets isolation attack.

How will Houston’s wings defend Kevin Durant?

You can’t stop Kevin Durant. He’s in the same pantheon as LeBron James when it comes to offensive brilliance. Some will argue he’s an even better offensive force, so this segment doesn’t aim to answer whether or not the Rockets can stop him. You just can’t. End of story.

But defending him isn’t always equal to stopping him. The least you can do isn’t to actually slow him down. What’s even better is you get to slow down the Golden State offense by disrupting their flow courtesy of defending KD.

The Warriors love to run a low post split, one of their favorite actions that initiate the catch and shoot sets of Curry and Thompson.

It starts with either Green or Durant. This set is better run with Durant who is more than capable of scoring off post-ups. He has the size, skill, and just enough power to get himself two points from there. It’s quite the luxury to have someone who you can just give the ball in an instant to get you an easy two points. It’s like the Golden Mushroom in Mario Kart, that you can just spam to death.

Here’s the thing with the Golden Mushroom though: it runs out eventually, and doesn’t always assure victory. As talented as Durant is, getting him to post up for mid-rangers again and again is exactly what opposing teams would want him to do. Those isolation post-ups were exactly why the KD-era Thunder could not win a championship to save their life.

Relying on KD alone will be the death of the Warriors. His isolation wizardry cannot be the be all end all of the Warriors offense. It’s just a Golden Mushroom that will get you back in the race, not make you win it. The Warriors will have to run their system of moving the ball well, while having bodies on the floor in constant motion, looking for open looks. The Durant post-up is a part of that, but it can’t be just THAT.

In any case, the Rockets do have the tools to try and defend Durant. PJ Tucker is the kind of chunky, physical defender you’d want against the lanky Durant. Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute are more than capable of defending him as well. They’re not going to stop Durant, and that’s okay. Tricking the Warriors into believing Durant post-ups can win them the game is a big step already in trying to beat the Warriors. Kill their flow, make them play Thunder ball.

Will the Death Lineup run the Rockets off the floor?

We’re not calling them the Hamptons Five. The Mega Lineup of Death is a bit too extreme, despite how true it is. We’re sticking with the Death Lineup for now.

The Death Lineup of Curry, Thompson, Igoudala, Durant and Green have a Net Rating of 40.9 over the 54 minutes that they have played over the course of the season. They’re always revered for their offense, but their ability to switch onto anyone on the defensive end is just as impressive. It’s an absolute nightmare of a five to go up against.

Mind you, Steve Kerr hasn’t deployed the Death Lineup just yet against the Rockets this season. Even though we have numerous content breaking down what makes this quintet so deadly, Mike D’Antoni doesn’t have the concrete experience of going up against this five. The least he can do is work with whatever information he has now in the hopes of it working.

As mentioned earlier, the defense of this line-up is every bit as impressive as their offense. In the clip above, Thompson gets beat after double teaming Nikola Mirotic, and is forced to collapse on RAJON FREAKING RONDO. Not a good basketball decision. But Green, being the elite defender that he is, immediately helps and blocks the lay-up attempt of Rondo. To add to that beauty, Thompson actually recovered, while Curry held on to Anthony Davis to avoid any kind of roll or offensive rebound from happening. Great stuff.

But if there’s a weakness the Rockets could take advantage of versus the Death Lineup, it’s their lack of strength and length in rebounding the basketball.

This is where Clint Capela comes in, a monster offensive rebounder who’s ranked first in terms of offensive rebounds per game in the Playoffs. He’s kind of like what DeAndre Jordan was to the Clippers, except he’s much more nimble. That means he can capably defend pick and roll switches involving Durant and Curry. Offensively, while Harden and Paul will undoubtedly receive a bulk of the attention, so scoring off put backs and lobs is a big possibility for Clint. To add, the Rockets will probably throw in PJ Tucker at the four, adding more defense and rebounding to the front court of Houston.

To say that the Warriors Death Lineup will run the Rockets off the floor is stretching it. The Rockets have the tools to try and derail whatever Durant and crew will throw at them. It may not come up with a positive outcome initially, but to keep it close is already a big win for Houston.

Will the Rockets’ Moreyball finally reign over the Warriors?

Houston, this season was great. They finished 65-17, led by possibly the MVP of the league. They’re probably going to go down as one of the best teams of all time. One of the best teams of all time to not win an NBA championship, that is.

As great as the Rockets are, the Warriors are a completely different animal. They’ve clearly turned it on, hungry to win a championship once more after facing *some* doubt over the course of the season. They’re locked in, knowing when to revert to that Golden Mushroom of a Durant post-up, or when to go to their usual trick of using the low-post split properly to dish it off to either Thompson or Curry for the corner three.

The Rockets are good, but the Golden State Warriors are legendary. They’re filled not just with talent, but with the experience, maturity and the hunger to get the job done. Don’t be surprised if Harden and Paul get into some disagreements as the pressure gets amped up over the course of the series.

For Golden State, if all else fails, they have that Golden Mushroom in Durant who they can use as a tiny boost when the going gets tough. He’s someone who is more than used to hitting big shots when need be.

It will be a closer battle than their previous meeting but the Warriors are just something else when they’re fully engaged.

Photos from Getty Images

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