Back in June, when the Rockets traded for Chris Paul, the basketball world collectively marked their calendars 11 months in advance for a Golden State-Houston showdown in the Western Conference finals.
We did not have to break the date.
The matchup gets underway Monday, with one of the best offenses in NBA history - the Rockets' - going up against the presumptive champions - the Warriors.
In many ways, this Houston team represents the Warriors' strongest intra-conference opponent since the Kevin Durant-led 2016 Oklahoma City Thunder.
But I don't expect a thrilling seven-game series like that Western Conference finals two years ago. No, instead I'm thinking that the series will be over a full week before the NBA Finals start, the result of a Golden State gentleman's sweep.
Because the more I look at this series and the paths the two teams took to get to it, the less I think it's going to be an epic affair between two worthy adversaries.
The reason is simple: The Rockets haven't faced the best the Warriors have to offer yet.
In three matchups in the regular season, the Warriors never used their Death Lineup against the Rockets. Injuries, rest, and disinterest all played a role in the Warriors holding back, and knowing that, it should come as no surprise that Houston won two of three games.
But the Warriors appear to be rounding into their best form just as we head into the most important series of the year, and that stellar play is spearheaded by the Death Lineup - the unit that played a major role in the Warriors' 16-1 postseason run last year.
The Death Lineup can get buckets in bunches, but it's also one of the best defensive lineups in the NBA. In fact, it's almost tailor-made to stymie the Rockets' offense, as it can switch defensive assignments at all five positions, swarm in the paint, close down passing lanes, and protect at the rim. With Draymond Green at center and Andre Iguodala on the floor with Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry, the Death Lineup presents a super smart, wickedly adaptable unit that boasts incredible defensive instincts.
Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni's dynamic offenses were the impetus for the pace-and-space revolution, and the Warriors' Death Lineup defense has proven to be an incredible foil to those kinds of fast-paced attacks and a trendsetter in its own right.
Only the Rockets shouldn't be considered all that dynamic anymore. This postseason Houston has attempted nearly 100 fewer passes per game than the Warriors and they've moved less than any other NBA team. (Yes, there's a statistic for distance traveled.)
That makes the Rockets somewhat predictable - D'Antoni might have some wrinkles he'll toss out every now and again, but their offense is pretty basic: A ton of 1-5 pick-and-rolls and isolations. (More than 50 percent of the Rockets' offensive plays this postseason have been isolations or pick-and-rolls, by far the highest percentage of any team in the league.)
We saw this simplicity in the Rockets' second-round series with the Jazz, who had one of the best defenses in the NBA in the regular season. The Rockets ran pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll, trying to get a mismatch on the perimeter with 7-foot-1 center Rudy Gobert.
When the Jazz countered by dropping Gobert into the lane (a la the Spurs in last year's second-round win over the Rockets), D'Antoni became a pragmatist - going five-out with three shooters on the weak side, moving the center (typically Clint Capela) into the strong-side corner, and running isolations with his point guards.
It worked - Gobert was rendered a liability, and when Utah's one perimeter defender who was able to keep Harden in from to him, Dante Exum, hurt his hamstring in Game 4, the series was over.
It was a smart coaching adjustment, but it was a simple one that didn't change the core dynamic of what has been an undynamic offense.
Houston has gotten away with it being slow and methodical and basic because it has two of the best on-ball creators in the game in Harden and Paul. But against the Warriors' Death Lineup, I doubt that simplicity will play.
In fact, I doubt it will play against many - if any - of the Warriors' lineups.
The Rockets want to exploit mismatches in the most direct way possible, and that's laudable, but looking at the defensive lineups the Warriors can trot out against Houston, I'm wondering where those mismatches will be found.
Thompson, Iguodala, and even Durant can all give the Warriors minutes against Harden one-on-one. Curry has looked good on the defensive end since his return, which mitigates some of the Rockets' advantage in having both Harden and Paul on the court - though expect Curry to be tested in isolation early and often in this series. Houston thinks he's the liability, but if that's the best the Rockets can do, the Warriors are in good shape (so long as Curry is.)
(Side note: Golden State would love to have Pat McCaw available for this series.)
Beyond that, the Warriors will lean into switching on pick-and-roll defense. Having Durant or Green defending on the perimeter isn't a problem for the Warriors, and behind that switch, the Warriors' collective length and athleticism means they can form a wall in the lane, shutting off passing lanes to the wings, and still close out on shooters if Harden or Paul decides to kick it out after a drive.
There's no defense that can totally shut down Harden or Paul, but the Warriors are as well-equipped to slow down them and their standing-around brethren as any team in the league.
It's not just the Death Lineup either - unless Steve Kerr decides he wants to inexplicably play Zaza Pachulia or JaVale McGee at center in this series (it's happened before), the Warriors will willingly switch everything on defense against the Rockets. Kerr has no problem letting Green, Kevon Looney, or Jordan Bell defend a guard like Harden on the perimeter, and the defensive versatility of those centers undercuts so much of what Houston wants to do on offense.
When Utah figured out how to slow down Houston's pick-and-roll last series, the Rockets just moved to isolation sets. Is that a great plan against the Warriors? I would advise against it - Golden State is allowing only 0.6 points per possession and a 29 effective field-goal percentage against isolations this postseason. Even if the Rockets square up Curry one-on-one every single time they cross half court, you have to wonder if they'll be able to score enough points to keep up with the Warriors' offense, which has gotten any look it wants over the last few games.
No, the Rockets will likely need to show off another kind of smoke on offense, and so far in this postseason, I've yet to see one.
So what will Houston do? They can try to pass the ball more, work in more off-ball screens and cuts into their offense. That could work, but that'd also play into the Warriors' hands - almost literally - as the team's length and defensive instincts (especially when Green and Iguodala are on the floor together) are near the top of the league. The Rockets have limited turnovers all year - they cannot afford to start turning the ball over now, as the Warriors are the NBA's best transition teams.
Or they could double-down on the direct play and try to spend the game at the free-throw line. My bet is that they try to do that.
If that's the case, it might be an epic series for the refs, but not the fans.
Don't get me wrong, the Rockets are a really, really good team and the Warriors should have plenty of "appropriate fear" in facing them, but Golden State has taken their defense to another level in the postseason - they're actually engaged now - while Houston has become more predictable in the playoffs.
Both teams have great offenses, but only one team has a truly great defense, and that's the Warriors - and it's one particularly well-suited to play Houston.
That's the difference in the series. If Golden State can exert its dominance on the defensive end early in this series, I'm not sure Houston has a counter like they did against Utah in the last round. And if that's the case, this supposedly epic showdown could be a big letdown for anyone not wearing blue and yellow.
Give me the Warriors in 5.
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