Rockets

Rockets Seeking Revenge Against Warriors

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In the first round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs, the Houston Rockets beat the Utah Jazz in what was a relatively stress-free five-game series. Their reward? A conference semi-finals matchup with the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors. For years, the Rockets have claimed that they’re “obsessed with beating the Warriors”. What do they need to do this time around to fulfill this obsession? Will their new roster additions be enough to take down the juggernaut?

2018 Houston Rockets

Last season, the Rockets came extraordinarily close to beating the Warriors in the playoffs and getting the chance to vie for a championship. It is not a stretch to say that the Rockets likely would have gone on to win the series if not for a Chris Paul hamstring injury late in Game 5.

Since last year, the Rockets have maintained their star players and a lot of their foundational pieces. There have been, however, some distinct roster changes that will heavily impact the upcoming series against the Warriors. Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute are gone. Two swingmen, both players were key perimeter defenders for the Rockets throughout the 2017-18 season. In the playoffs, though, Mbah a Moute was dealing with an injury and was largely ineffective. Ariza, for his part, may have played effective defensive on Kevin Durant, but his offensive impact in the series was a giant negative. He shot a paltry 20% from three-point range in the series. This includes an 0-9 performance in the decisive Game 7.

Though losing these two skilled defenders was a difficult transition for the Rockets early this season, the team has since righted the ship. Their roster changes will be beneficial in the upcoming series against the Warriors.

2019 Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets will enter Oracle Arena on Sunday with a few fresh faces that were not present the last time these two teams met in the postseason.

First – Danuel House. House was signed by the Rockets earlier this year. He immediately made a huge impact as both a perimeter defender and a volume scorer. While he looked a bit shaky in the series against the Jazz – shooting just 32% from the field – his length and quickness will allow him to clog up the passing lanes against the Warriors. PJ Tucker will likely be the primary defender on Durant, but House is well-equipped to guard him in spurts when necessary.

Kenneth Faried was brought in earlier this season to shore up the roster after the Rockets suffered a slew of injuries. Faried had kind of lost his place in the league over the last few seasons, but he quickly emerged as an important piece of the Rockets roster. Faried only played sporadic minutes against the Jazz, but his high-energy playing style is far more suited for a matchup with the uptempo Warriors. He has already looked good against the Warriors this season, feasting on their small-ball lineup:

The other major addition this season is Austin Rivers. He features as a backup ballhandler to Harden and Paul. A lot of the offense will run through him when either one of them is on the bench. He has been a steady contributor throughout the year, with his pesky defense and his ability to shoot from the outside and drive to the rim. With another ballhandler and spot-up shooter like Rivers on the court, the Rockets have a lot more weapons at their disposal this time around.

Other Major Roster Pieces

Chris Paul

Chris Paul, the hall-of-fame sidekick that was brought in at the beginning of last season to relieve some of the ballhandling duties from James Harden, has dealt with nagging injuries throughout the year, but appears to be fully healthy (or at least as healthy as he can be) heading into the Semi-Finals.

CP3 looked good against the Jazz, scoring over 17 per game while averaging 2.8 steals. He will act as a calming force for the Rockets, making sure the offense never gets either too hectic or too stagnant. Paul’s value, though, goes beyond his on-court impact; his teammates look up to him as he offers support and reassurance:

Before his injury last season, he was probably the Rockets’ most important player against the Warriors. The Rockets will once again need his steady hand if they want to advance this year.

Clint Capela

Capela has earned every penny of his massive contract extension. His post offense is much improved, and he remains an always reliable defensive force. He has been dealing with a bit of a virus in the past few days, but the time off after the Jazz series should give him enough time to recover. In the past, the Warriors’ small-ball “death lineup” has run Capela off the floor. Capela needs to assert himself from the get-go if the Rockets want to have a chance to win this series. Based on these comments, it looks like he’s ready to go:

Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker

Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker will get a lot of open three-point looks this series off of passes from Harden. If they hit their shots at a high clip, the Rockets will be in a great position. Gordon, who used to play the sixth-man role, has added extra shooting and ballhandling ability to the starting group. He plays heavy minutes and will look to shadow Klay Thompson on defense throughout the series.

Tucker, who had the game-saving rebound against the Jazz in Game 3, is the heart and soul of the Rockets. He plays with so much intensity and passion each game. The Rockets will need all they can get from him defensively if they want to slow down Durant.

James Harden Looks to Define His Legacy

The Rockets are led by former MVP and current MVP candidate James Harden. He has put together an otherworldly season, and most of the burden against the Warriors will fall on his shoulders. Defensively, Harden has been much improved this year – especially as a post defender. However, his lateral quickness is lacking, making it too tall a task for him to guard someone like Klay or Stephen Curry. Instead, look for Harden to hide on someone like Andre Iguodala or even the much bigger Draymond Green.

In the first round, the Jazz made it their sole focus to stop Harden and turn him into a passer. By essentially guarding him from behind, they took away the opportunity for his patented stepback.

It was, frankly, a little silly, but it served a purpose. Harden lost some of his offensive rhythm and had to look for other ways to score. While he still had a solid series – averaging 27.8 points, 8 assists, 2.2 steals – he wasn’t able to get to his spots as easily as he would have liked to. The Semi-Finals haven’t started yet, but I would bet that the Warriors play defense against Harden in a more traditional manner. Yes, they’ll throw different looks at him, but they have too much pride to literally stand behind arguably the best offensive player in basketball.

What does that mean for Harden? Well, it means that he’ll have his opportunity to score and generate offense like he normally does; it means that he will get the chance to take on guys like Durant or Thompson one-on-one; it means that he can repeatedly go at Steph Curry in the pick and roll; it means that he will have the chance to shoot the stepback three…

It means that Harden can play the way he played throughout the regular season – the same regular season that was perhaps the greatest offensive performance the NBA has seen since the days of Wilt Chamberlain. The Golden State Warriors are one of the greatest teams of all-time; if Harden can play to what we know he is capable of, though, the Houston Rockets can win this series.

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About Zach Zola

Zach Zola is a student at Brown University studying English. He grew up in New York, but has been a die-hard Rockets fan since the days of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. He believes that James Harden is the only King James in the NBA.

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