The 2014-15 NBA season has been one of the most thrilling years for the league in a while. In large part, it’s been because of the unpredictability of it, which has carried over into the playoffs.
I felt coming into the playoffs that there was no one team that stood out as a lock to win the title, and that remains the case as the conference finals begin. Any of the four remaining teams could win the whole thing.
But only two teams will have that opportunity. After launching this blog last year with a breakdown of the NBA Finals, I wanted to take it a step further, and offer some of my thoughts on the four teams remaining before the conference finals tip-off.
We’ll start with the conference I’m most familiar with: the West.
WARRIORS V. ROCKETS
This is a great matchup between two teams that like to shoot from the perimeter, and two players who spent the whole season dominating games for their respective teams in Stephen Curry and James Harden.
I’m interested to see how it plays out for each team — particularly how each team goes about defending the other’s best player. There are multiple ways you can try to defend each of those guys, so it’s going to be interesting to see what each team draws up, and how they make adjustments as the series goes on. It should be a very entertaining series.
First and foremost, you have to recognize that the Warriors have the league MVP on their team. Anybody that has Stephen Curry is going to be pretty good.
Obviously, Steph really has to play well for the Warriors to advance to the Finals. That kind of goes without saying, but to me, Steph playing well goes beyond just knocking down the open shots he’s going to get. Shooters have off nights, but Steph is going to have the ball in his hands more than anyone else, whether his shot is falling or not. He has to get his teammates open looks as well. The Warriors are at their best when he’s attacking and he’s racking up 10-plus assists. It allows the other guys to get going.
There’s only one or two guys on that team who can get their own shot, so they have to get their shots within their offense through ball movement. That usually stems from Steph because he gets a lot of respect from defenders, and they’ll refuse to play off of him or help off of him very much at all. If he knocks down a couple shots early, the defense is going to respect him even more. That will allow him to drive and get other people involved. That’s the key. Usually, when he does that well, the other guys feed off of it.
The same can be said for the Rockets with Harden. Houston spreads the floor really well, which gives him a lot of driving lanes, and he’s just so good attacking downhill that you almost have to send two guys to stop him. When you do that, he finds the open man, and they have some knockdown shooters. I think they led the league in corner threes this year, so usually there’s a guy spotted up in the corner. It’s a pick-your-poison: You either help on Harden — and when you do, he finds the open man and they get the ball to that corner — or you just live with Harden getting to the basket, and taking those shots.
I think you can try to exploit the fact they don’t have many other guys to make plays on their own besides him. If you can contain Harden and keep him from getting 30 points and 10 assists, you’ll be in pretty good shape — as long as you don’t let Dwight Howard completely take over the game by dominating in the post. I don’t see that happening this series with Andrew Bogut down there to handle him, for the most part.
But containing Harden is easier said than done.
KNOW YOUR ROLE
As much focus as there will be on the one-on-one matchup between the MVP and the MVP runner-up, I think that feeds more into what fans want to see and talk about than reality. Both of those guys are going to do what they do, but they’re each just one player on a team. The difference is going to come down to more than that. That’s why I think you could see each team’s role players determine the outcome of the series.
For Golden State, as soon as you get past Steph, there’s Klay Thompson waiting to beat you. With Steph and Klay, the Warriors have one of the best one-two punches in the league, two great three-point shooters. If you help off of one, the other will fire away and start knocking down shots. Klay is an incredible shooter with a quick release. The thing that separates him from other shooters is that if you contest his shot or take away his perimeter looks, he can put the ball on the floor and make other plays, too.
Outside of those two, the Warriors don’t have a lot of shot creators, but they have some really good pieces that complement those two guys, and know their roles extremely well. Andrew Bogut is a great passer. They run a lot of things through him, allowing him to be a playmaker from the post a lot of times. He’s one of the most talented passing big men in the league. That makes them special. They cut off him very well, and they make those cuts trusting that he’s going to find them. He’s a solid screen-setter as well, as is Draymond Green. They both have a high basketball IQ and feel for the game.
The other thing that sets the Warriors apart is that everybody on their team is unselfish. It’s hard to defend when you have so many guys who can all dribble toward the basket, attack the rim, and make plays. Even Bogut can put the ball on the floor more than most seven-foot bigs can. You have to respect someone at all times, and a lot of times, players make plays for themselves that get other guys open. That’s one of the ways they can get both of those shooters open: putting pressure on the basket with everyone else. Then you almost have to help. And when you help, they do a good job of finding the open man, and knocking it down most of the time.
The Rockets also get a lot of threes up, and the rate of success they have from deep is a game-changer. They’re also really good at getting to the rim, and they shoot a lot of free throws because of that. If they can do those two things well, they’re a tough out because they have a closer in Harden. They didn’t really have a guy to complement Harden the way Klay does Steph until Josh Smith emerged late in the last series.
I think Smith is the X-factor for the Rockets. If he can keep playing at the level he did against the Clippers, they’re an even more dangerous team. He carried them to that win in Game 5. He has to play well against the Warriors for the Rockets to have a chance to advance. Smith is able to knock down those long range shots. He’s also a guy who can drive to the rim and make plays there to finish, or dish it off to Dwight for lobs. Josh is probably going to find himself in a lot of mismatch situations when they switch with Green, and he’ll have chances to make some plays for them. It’s just a matter of whether or not he’s able to do that.
MORE THAN A SHOOTOUT
Both teams love to fire away from the outside, and a lot of these games are going to turn into shootouts. But both teams are better defensively than they’re given credit for.
The Rockets are a team that likes to gamble a little bit. They’re a team that likes to be aggressive off the ball — mostly because they have Dwight Howard, who they know is going to contest your shot if you get to the basket and protect the rim.
When Dwight is able to have an impact on the game defensively, like he usually does, they’re a hard to beat. Having him back there allows them to be active on the ball as well, especially on the wing. Playing against them as the go-to wing player is pretty frustrating because you have Trevor Ariza guarding you, and then when he comes out, you have Corey Brewer guarding you. Both of those guys look to get steals, and they take the kinds of gambles that irritate a scorer. But that’s what makes them good defenders.
You can’t sleep on Golden State’s defense, either. It was honestly one of the toughest defenses I had to go against all year. They mix it up well, and they force you to shoot tough shots. They do a good job of making you shoot mid-range jump shots and contested floaters. To me, those are the two hardest shots to shoot, and they usually had you doing it with a hand in your face.
They can also switch a lot of things because they have a versatile big man in Draymond playing the four, and he can defend multiple positions. That allows them to switch just about everything 1-through-5 for at least one possession, and that throws you off your game in the halfcourt offense. When they do that, everyone else on the team becomes a better defender. Draymond’s versatility makes them a really dangerous defensive team. He’s really active and pretty mobile, so when they play their defense and force turnovers or misses, he can get out in transition, and make plays offensively as well.
All that said, I think Golden State is going to win this series. That’s not to say Houston doesn’t have a chance, because I certainly think they could win. But to me, Golden State is the favorite for a reason. They’re a stronger team overall, and they have more depth than Houston, which will play a key role.
The Warriors are one of the deepest teams in the league, with former All-Stars like David Lee and Andre Iguodala coming off the bench for them. That was tough to handle in the regular season when you’re not necessarily just playing seven or eight guys. They could go nine or 10 guys deep, and that’s why they were the best team in the league.
You don’t usually roll your rotation nine or 10 deep in the playoffs, but you also can’t have your bench come in and not produce anything in the postseason. So when Lee, Iguodala, Livingston and Barbosa come in, they need to make sure they produce something for them. When they do, Golden State can win a game with ease. If they don’t get anything from those guys, it puts a lot of pressure on Steph and Klay to make shots. But I think they’ll do enough to get the Warriors to the NBA Finals.