Series Preview: Golden State Warriors vs. Houston Rockets

The moment that NBA fans have been waiting for all season has arrived. The two best teams in the NBA (the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors) face off in a Western Conference Finals that should be one for the ages.

The moment that NBA fans have been waiting for all season has arrived. The Golden State Warriors managed to rack up easy 4-1 victories in their first two playoff matchups, and are well on their way to another championship despite finishing with their worst regular season record in the Steve Kerr era. However, they face their toughest opponent since the 2016 NBA Finals in this Western Conference Finals matchup against the Houston Rockets.

The Rockets finished the regular season with the best record in the NBA this year, the first time in three years that the Warrior didn't hold that honor. Their three-point barrage of an offense has gone to another level with another All-NBA guard in Chris Paul joining James Harden in the backcourt. Furthermore, they have the wing depth defensively to bother Kevin Durant for 48 minutes in a way that almost no other team can. This series will probably be the best to watch of the 2018 playoffs, and the loser will have to go home knowing that they almost certainly surrendered an NBA championship over whichever overmatched challenger comes out of the East. This should be one for the ages.

Season Series: Houston 2-1 over Golden State

The Houston Rockets managed to win the season series over the Warriors 2-1, including their narrow one-point victory on Opening Night. All three games were offensive showcases--only one team scored fewer than 110 points in any of these games (the Warriors lost 116-108 on January 20th). The Warriors' lone victory came with James Harden out, although the Warriors were also without Kevin Durant.

The season series showed that these two teams are quite evenly matched. The Warriors may have lost two of three, but they hold the overall point margin from the regular season by just one point. These two teams were clearly the class of the Western Conference all season long, as they were the top two seeds well above the 49-win Trail Blazers in third place.

Scouting Report: Golden State Warriors

The scouting report on the Warriors is in some ways pretty simple. They have three of the best shooters in NBA history, two of whom have won MVP awards. They have a former Defensive Player of the Year who is the most versatile defender since Kevin Garnett. They have a bench filled with defensive stalwarts who can cover multiple positions. The Warriors have won two of the last three titles and racked up the best regular season record in the NBA during the year that they didn't win the title. Simply put, the Warriors are a juggernaut.

The Warriors will look to counter Houston's presumed three-point heavy offense with a consistent attack from deep of their own led by Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. They can throw Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and Shaun Livingston at James Harden all game long to throw Harden out of his rhythm on offense. The main scouting question for them is just how long Draymond Green can anchor the Death Lineup at center with Clint Capela manning the middle for the Rockets. Despite not living up to his early-season play after returning from injury, Jordan Bell might see some playing time in this series as the only big man capable of keeping up with Capela athletically.

Scouting Report: Houston Rockets

The Rockets racked up 65 wins in the regular season for a reason. They also cruised through the first two rounds of the playoffs, with 4-1 series victories over the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Utah Jazz, for a reason. They have the only backcourt in the league that can compare pretty favorably with the Warriors, combining two All-NBA guards in Chris Paul and James Harden. The Rockets broke every three-point record for a team this season en route to finishing the regular season with more three-point makes than two-pointers.

The Rockets are more than just their two future Hall of Fame guards, however. They have three stellar defenders on the wing in Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, and P.J. Tucker. Those three can keep Kevin Durant (relatively) in check defensively for 48 minutes, while Houston's two elite guards can run the offense to great success for 48 minutes as well. The Warriors should watch out for Clint Capela as well; he has the speed to switch onto guards defensively while defending the rim as well as anyone in basketball. Capela is on a tear in this postseason, and his offensive rim-running will test a Warriors squad that is thin up front.

3 Keys to Victory

1. Steph Curry outplays Chris Paul.

2. Klay Thompson plays excellent defense on James Harden.

3. The non-Draymond Green centers hold up on defense against Houston's 3-point barrage.

Key Matchup

The most important matchup in this series is between the two best point guards in basketball. Chris Paul is defying age better than anyone in the league not named LeBron James and closed out the Utah Jazz with a masterful 41-point, 10-assist performance including an 8-10 performance from beyond the arc. Paul is still one of the best defensive guards in the league: he has some of the quickest hands in the league and makes up for his relative lack of size with a strong lower frame and an almost unhealthy amount of competitive spirit. Paul's historically excellent individual playoff stats have been undermined by his lack of team success in the postseason. CP3 will cement his status among the top five (and I would say the top three) of NBA point guards with a title this season, and he has been playing like he is well aware of this fact.

Curry, on the other side of this matchup, is making his own case as a legendary point guard. His lack of a Finals MVP notwithstanding, Curry's unprecedented shooting touch makes him the second-best player in basketball. He has a truly ridiculous impact on the Warriors' offense; Curry's incredible shooting gravity tears apart opposing defenses who cannot risk leaving him open for a second once he crosses halfcourt. While Curry is nowhere close to a turnstile on the defensive end, however, he is nowhere close to CP3 on that end of the floor. Still, Curry and the Warriors destroyed Chris Paul when he was on the Clippers and could certainly do the same in this series.

Series Prediction 

This series will not be anything like the previous two for the Golden State Warriors. The Houston Rockets are a serious opponent who gave the Warriors trouble during the regular season and could easily do so again. This series will almost certainly go to at least six games, and could easily go to seven games as well. A strong series from Clint Capela or a couple of games where the Rockets get hot from deep could swing this series away from the reigning champions.

The Golden State Warriors are still the favorites to win this series. Their regular season record, impressive though it would be for most of the league, was well below expectations due to injury and lack of effort more than anything. Despite already losing more games during this playoff run, the Warriors are still the Goliath that the rest of the league is looking to conquer. However, the Houston Rockets will be the biggest challenge that the Warriors have faced since Kevin Durant found his way to Oakland. The Warriors have been able to cruise through the past two season without really feeling threatened, but they cannot afford to take this Rockets team lightly if they are going to win another championship.

Final Prediction: The Golden State Warriors defeat the Houston Rockets 4-2 to advance to the NBA Finals.

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