Why the Houston Rockets Can Beat the Golden State Warriors

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It seems odd that a team that just won 65 games and has the №1 overall seed in the NBA would need a defense of why they could win the Western Conference Finals, but that’s where we are at in 2018, with the Golden State Warriors heavy favorites over the higher-seeded Rockets.

There is justifiable reason for that. The Warriors, after all, are arguably the greatest team ever assembled. They’ve been to the last three NBA Finals and won two of them. They have four All-Stars and two former MVPs who are still in the prime of their careers.

Because of their collection of talent and recent history of accomplishments, they’re favored, but as great as they are and have been, it doesn’t diminish how good the Rockets have been this season. The problem with many takes on the series, then, isn’t people overrating Golden State, but underrating the Rockets.

While the Warriors are historically great, the Rockets have been playing on the same level as the Warriors at their best this season, especially when they have their three most important players — James Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela — in the game.

When all three were on the court at the same time during the regular season, their net rating was a robust 12.1 over 736 minutes, a little lower but still comparable with the Warriors best trio of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green, who were plus-13.9 over 829 minutes. Swap Green for Klay Thompson and it’s plus-13.8.

This season, Harden and Paul combined to score or assist on 83.0 points per game when they both played, after accounting for when they assisted one another. That’s the most by any tandem of players in league history. In the playoffs, they’ve increased that total to 83.3.

Offensively, Capela is the perfect compliment to the two point guards — his long reach and soft hands gobbling up lobs for easy dunks. Including the playoffs, he’s flushed 135 alley oops on just 164 attempts (an 82.3 field-goal percentage). He has 232 assisted dunks in the regular and postseason combined, which is 20 more than anyone else, and more than double all but seven players.

That, however only tells part of the story.

The Dubs are a team that overwhelms you with its four All-Stars on the court. The Rockets are a team that breaks you with the constant and relentless pressure of keeping a Hall of Fame point guard on the court at all times in Harden or Paul and a barrage of bombers and dunkers to run with.

You see the difference when you look at game results instead of just lineup numbers. The Rockets have played 55 games with their big three (including the playoffs). They’re 50–5 in those contests (39 of those wins came against playoff teams) with a +11.2 net rating.

By comparison, the Warriors are 31–11 and a net rating of plus-6.9 when they have their four All-Stars. By that measure, the Rockets performed demonstrably better this year with their three best players than the Warriors did with their four All-Stars.

That’s what happens with the relentless pounding the Rockets provide as opposed to the inevitable deluge that the Dubs deliver. Both will eventually pop off for a big run, but while the Warriors usually get that from their “Hamptons Five,” for the Rockets that will often come with only Paul or Harden on the court.

The constant pounding eventually breaks the defense, then whatever Hall of Fame point guard is out there with whatever array of weapons he has to use just goes in for the kill. This is about more than depth. It’s about effectively having multiple versions of a starting lineup.

After the starting five, the Rockets second-most used lineup is Harden, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Clint Capela. They have a net rating of plus-21.4. Paul has several units with almost completely different player combinations. For instance, with Nene, Luc Mbah a Moute, Gordon and PJ Tucker, he had a plus-21.2 net rating.

They have 13 different player combinations with 25 minutes and a net rating over plus-15.0. They’ve played a sum of 833 minutes.

By comparison, the Warriors have four such lineups involving seven players who have played 238 minutes together.

This series is about the Rockets persistence versus the Warriors’ dominance. And while the Rockets clearly have a huge advantage (statistically) in persistence area, the Warriors’ advantage in dominance isn’t nearly as great as you might think.

In fact, you can make a credible argument that the Rockets’ Big Three outplayed the Warriors Big Four this year. Paul, Harden and Capela had an aggregate Real Plus-Minus of 16.25, per ESPN.com. The Dubs foursome had just 14.88.

Now, of course, RPM doesn’t mean everything, and I wouldn’t argue it does. But here, it’s not a random number in isolation, and it’s not entirely without meaning.

It’s not independent of the aforementioned record and net rating. If you look at the numbers, the Rockets should be the favorites. It’s when looking past them that you can build a case for the Warriors.

Looking at the series entirely objectively, the Rockets’ have a 79 percent chance of winning, according to FiveThirtyEight.com, but it is fair to account for what the numbers don’t.

Maybe the Warriors aren’t performing as best they can because of injuries or boredom, but that doesn’t diminish that the Rockets are playing exceptionally well — even as well as Golden State when it is engaged.

The problem is that some are accounting for those deficiencies with Golden State, but not with Houston, and that’s not logically honest.

Yes, the Warriors are underrepresented by the numbers, but don’t let that fool you into thinking the Rockets aren’t — or even more so, that the numbers make the Rockets seem better than they really are.

Even if you account for all the Warriors history to mitigate the extreme statistical advantage the Rockets have, you can’t entirely negate the Rockets’ chances of winning. That’s when you just step beyond logic into misguided faith.

My point is that maybe there’s a little room for some nuance here. Maybe the Warriors Big Four is better than they played this year, but maybe that talent gap is not a massive as some want to make it out to be.

Maybe Paul or Harden aren’t going to have a big talent advantage over Curry, but they will over Shawn Livingston. They’ll still have a bevy of 3-and-D’ wings to choose from. They’ll still be able to keep up that persistent pressure when the Dubs need to sit their starters.

Maybe Clint Capela isn’t as good Green, but he’s by far the best full-time center in this series, and there’s no way Draymond plays the 5 the whole time.

Maybe Curry and Durant are the two best player in the series, but Paul and Harden are the two best shot creators when accounting for scoring and assisting.

Maybe the Warriors do have an elite defense, capable of switching and forcing mismatches. But the Rockets were every bit as good this year, and not by fluke. When Mbah a Moute and Tucker have both been on the court this season, the Rockets defensive rating is 98.3 in 903 minutes.

By comparison, the Warriors’ two best defenders, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala combined for 99.0 in 859 minutes.

In other words, the Warriors best five might be a little bit better than the Rockets best quintet. But the Rockets might be able to put up a better full 48 minutes. Their manner of winning could quite realistically be more effective against the Warriors than the Warriors’ against the Rockets.

I’m not guaranteeing anything in this series, and anyone who does guarantee anything hasn’t looked at it long enough or honestly enough. But the Rockets have a very real chance.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com.

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Kelly Scaletta

I write for several outlets as an NBA analyst, including Bleacher Report, FanRag, Dime, BBallBreadown and RealBallInsiders. My political views are my own.