The Western conference finals begin with the Houston Rockets after only one day of rest following a 7-game series, hoping to finally beat the Golden State Warriors, who had almost a week off before resuming their ride towards the title.
Some of the focus, at least in the first game, will go to the MVP and his runner-up. Stephen Curry has been fantastic in this postseason, especially when Tony Allen isn’t guarding him. He’s averaging 28.2 points per game in the postseason and although the Grizzlies gave him a lot more trouble than the Pelicans did, he finished strong, scoring 33 points in game 4 and 32 in game 6 to clinch the series.
Harden himself has been a bit more up and down in this postseason. Heavily relying on his ability to reach the free throw line, the Rockets lost games in which Harden shot 10 times from the line or less. He was only 39.8% from the field against the Clippers, averaging 25.4 points and 8.1 assists in the series; he’s automatic from the line. However, relying on the referees to get you to where you’re most comfortable isn’t a very good tactic.
One thing we might see in this series is another version of hacking a player. Dwight Howard overall had a very good series against the Clippers, especially the finish. But his shooting from the line remains a big issue for the Rockets, shooting 38.8% from the line in the conference semifinals, costing his team almost eight points per game from the line.
The biggest question heading into the first game is how the Rockets handle the Warriors’ backcourt of Curry and Klay Thompson. Thompson took a step back in scoring with “only” 17.8 points in the Memphis series, but he shot very well (47.7% from the field, 46.9% from beyond the arc) and usually plays well against Harden on both ends of the floor.
The Rockets will send someone bigger to the backcourt in order to disrupt the spacing and harmony Curry and Thompson rely on so much. Probably Trevor Ariza as much as possible, while Josh Smith will get more and more minutes, as his ability to influence the game on both ends of the floor has proved to be vital for the team, making Terrence Jones more and more irrelevant.
Bench guys usually turn out to be more important as the series goes on and the adjustments take place. Andre Iguodala and David Lee are two All-Stars on the bench for Golden State, but the Warriors are hardly using their bench except for Iguodala and a bit of Shaun Livingston. Rotations get shorter in the playoffs, and the Warriors are counting on their top 7 being better than what anyone else has to offer.