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Warriors-Rockets preview: Steph Curry and Klay Thompson’s ankles, guarding James Harden, Golden State’s Big decision

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Clint Capela let it slip at the postgame press conference after the Rockets eliminated the Utah Jazz: He’s wanted a Warriors rematch all along. Well, he’s got it. The Warriors finally closed out the Clippers with a 129-110 win in Game 6 on Friday, setting the stage for a conference finals rematch from last season, this time in the second round. Game 1 between the Warriors and Rockets is scheduled for Sunday at 3:30 pm ET in Oakland. Below are some things to watch for in this series. 

Guardin’ Harden

There are no fewer than five no-doubt Hall of Famers in this series — Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul and Klay Thompson, and I would say Draymond Green is more than likely a sixth — but none of them represent more singular importance than Harden, who is simply everything to the Rockets. Harden did not play particularly well, at least by his standards, in the first round against Utah — just 37 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3 with 28 turnovers in five games. It is a matter of debate how much the extreme defensive measures taken by the Jazz had to do with that, literally playing behind Harden to stop his step-back 3 and all but roll out a red carpet for him into the lane. 

As you can see, Harden runs directly into Rudy Gobert at the rim on this play. That’s obviously by design. Gobert is one of the best rim protectors in the league, which is the only way this kind of defense can feasibly succeed. The Warriors don’t have a big man like Gobert to funnel Harden toward. More than that, the Warriors, in the opinion of one Western Conference scout that spoke with CBS Sports, have too much defensive pride to basically admit they can’t cover Harden under normal conditions. 

“I don’t see Golden State doing what Utah did,” the scout said. “I feel the Warriors have a confidence to them that they don’t [feel they] need to do anything gimmicky. I can see them denying him the ball some, and doubling/blitzing pick-and-rolls. I’m guessing they mix it up to keep him guessing. Harden is too good to show the same thing every time.

“I don’t feel anything works on him,” the scout continued. “I think the best way is to make him work so hard all game for everything, even just to get a touch, and just hope he gets tired and starts settling for contested shots. Make him work with multiple dribbles and multiple moves. That’s hard to sustain if he’s doing it every possession. That’s why I didn’t love what Utah did. It let him walk into the lane easily and pick them apart [and not expend energy].”

It’s true, Harden did pile up 40 assists in the five games, but honestly that’s not that big a number for Harden. The simple truth is, if Harden shoots 37 percent from the field and only dishes out eight assists per game against Golden State, you’d think it would be hard for the Rockets to win. That said, Harden didn’t shoot great against the Warriors in last year’s conference finals — 41 percent from the field, 24 percent from 3 — and we all know the Rockets were one Chris Paul injury and/or one fluke, historically cold shooting streak in Game 7 from potentially knocking off the Warriors.  

From that standpoint, the Warriors perhaps already don’t have much room for error, and if Harden gets going, it might be too much for them to overcome. He had 44 points, 15 assists and 10 boards in Houston’s 135-134 win over Golden State earlier this season. He is good enough to beat anyone on his own. The Warriors have better defenders than Utah and, yeah, they’re prideful, but they’re also smart. They’re not going to let Harden beat them by himself. 

“I think Golden State will get the ball out of his hands as much as they can,” a Western Conference coach told CBS Sports. “That will be their game plan, I think. They’ll double him and blitz him. It’s basically going to be, ‘OK, PJ Tucker, you beat us.’ You look around, they have Eric Gordon and Tucker and some other guys capable of knocking down shots, but they’re not full of shooters. You take your chances with the other guys beating you.”

That sounds good, but of course, the Rockets are well aware teams don’t want Harden to have his way, and they’ve spent two years developing counters as a team, and Harden has gotten himself into much better shape and taken his offensive arsenal to another level with the step-back 3 and an improved floater to combat bigs waiting for him at the rim. Go back and watch the way the Warriors defended Harden in their last regular-season matchup this year, when the Warriors beat Houston despite Kevin Durant not playing. It was a lot of the Rockets doing what they do: Putting bigs in screen actions, forcing them to switch, and Harden going to work one-on-one. 

This is where the Warriors’ confidence in not just their individual defenders, but also their team defense behind them comes into play. They have been more than happy to let Kevon Looney guard Harden one-on-one on the perimeter. Looney is capable of at least contesting Harden, but it’s more about Harden settling for the jumper if Looney checks his first move:

If Harden doesn’t settle, Looney has issues:

Curry is much the same way. He can, to some degree, guard Harden. He’s handsy and stronger than you think, he always gives full effort, but he’s a reacher (we’ll get to this) and he can easily end up in foul trouble. Still, the Warriors make no real attempt to avoid Curry ending up on Harden in switching actions. They’ll start with Klay Thompson on him, and Andre Iguodala and perhaps Draymond Green will see time as well, but who starts on Harden is almost irrelevant because the Rockets make their living forcing that initial defender to switch off of him. This will be a cat-and-mouse game all series. The Warriors believe they have the defensive manpower to play, for the most part, relatively straight up. We’ll see. 

PJ Tucker and Kevin Durant

There was a strange stretch at the end of the season when Durant just kind of wasn’t shooting, for lack of a better explanation. That is not the case anymore. Durant was incredible against the Clippers, scoring 50 points in the Game 6 clincher, 45 in Game 5, while averaging an even 35 points for the series. But we know Durant, and the Warriors overall, had some issues with Houston’s switching defense in last year’s playoffs, and it led to a lot of isolation for Durant, who shot 17-for-46 from the field in the pivotal Games 4 and 5 when Houston ran out to a 3-2 series lead. 

“You’re not going to stop Durant, but just like with Harden, make him be a volume scorer,” an Eastern Conference scout told CBS Sports. “Houston was able to do that at points [in last year’s playoffs]. Where Golden State kills you is with all the movement and you start chasing Curry and Thompson and everything opens up. Houston has to muck all that up. But do they have the same defenders they had last season? This might be where you really feel the Trevor Ariza loss.”

A lot of people pointed to this when the Rockets let Ariza walk to Phoenix last summer. Surely Ariza isn’t going to stop Durant, but the deterrent is in the aggregate — a whole slew of long, athletic defenders switching all over, rather than one guy really doing the defensive damage. That said, PJ Tucker is a beast. In that aforementioned game earlier this season when Harden torched Golden State for 44 points, Tucker held Durant to 6-of-14 shooting in the possessions he was the main defender, which is all you can ask for against a scorer of KD’s caliber. Look at him harass Durant here:

Tucker is strong enough to push Durant off his spot in the post, and those few extra feet out make a difference on shots:

Tucker has a huge role in this series. Not only will he be checking Durant a lot, but as we’ll talk about next, he could also see time at center if and when the Rockets go super small to combat Golden State’s Death Lineup with Draymond Green at the five. On top of that, he’s Houston’s corner 3-point shooter, which is so integral to what they do. It’s simple: Harden and Capela run pick and roll and suddenly two defenders are having to account for Harden going to the rim, Capela rolling for the lob, and Tucker stationed in the corner. More times than not, defenders are, rightfully, more concerned with cutting off Harden and dropping down to stop the lob to Capela. But when they do that … bingo:

Tucker is the X-factor for Houston in this series. He’s going to be saddled with guarding Durant a lot, and his shooting, along with Eric Gordon, is the only truly threatening floor spacing Houston has to open the court for Harden and Paul. In Houston’s three victories in last year’s conference finals, Tucker was 7-for-12 from 3. That is not a coincidence. 

Warriors’ big decision

Will Steve Kerr start the Death Lineup with Draymond at the five? Doubtful. Assuming he goes conventional, will he start Looney or Bogut as the big? Golden State actually went with a variation of the Death Lineup, only starting Shaun Livingston instead of Iguodala, to start Game 6 against the Clippers, but the Clippers don’t have a rolling big like Capela to contend with until Montrezl Harrell gets into the game off the bench. Making Green contend with Capela on all those pick-and-rolls and lobs and fight him tooth and nail for every rebound from the start of a game is a lot to ask. 

One would assume Looney, for a lot of the reasons stated above, will get the start. He’s at least serviceable on the perimeter when switched onto Harden and Paul, and he’s quietly a big-time contributor for Golden State. The Warriors outscored the Clippers by 87 points during his minutes in their series. 

Looney just fits in to what Golden State does. Bogut still has good timing as a rim protector, but he could be a liability in this series with his offensive limitations and inability to guard on the perimeter. One way or another, Looney is going to play a big part for the Warriors, because we know Kerr doesn’t like to overwork the Death Lineup.  

Steph Curry concerns

First and foremost, Curry rolled his ankle in Game 6 against the Clippers. He returned to the game and finished out his minutes, and he looked OK, but he didn’t look quite like himself. Ankles can blow up once you stop moving and sleep for a night, and indeed Curry and Klay Thompson are both reportedly considered questionable for Game 1. 

There’s no telling how Curry or Thompson’s ankle will respond before Sunday’s Game 1. It’s not a lot of turnaround time. Beyond that, this is something else to watch for: Curry’s foul trouble. I’ve been hounding anyone who who will listen about this all year, and finally someone addressed it. That person was Steve Kerr:

“Sometimes, [Curry] just gets in the habit of trying to strip the ball,” Kerr recently told reporters. “So, more than anything, it’s just about trying to get him past that habit. I keep telling him how valuable he is. I’d much rather he just got out of the guy’s way and gave him a layup and kept playing.

“He’s much more valuable than two points. And we’ve got plenty of help; our defense is predicated on help.”

Kerr is dead on here. Curry gets in foul trouble early in games too often. It screws up the Warriors’ rotations, and more damaging, it screws up, or at least prolongs, Curry getting into his rhythm. Curry is a reacher, flat out. He slaps and strips and tries to make up for not always being able to stay in front of guys by making a play with his hands. The effort is commendable, but to Kerr’s point, it’s not smart. 

And don’t think the Rockets don’t know this. They’ll seek out Curry on switches no matter what, but when he gets that first foul early in the first quarter, or a second or third early in the second, they are going to go at him mercilessly, and when guarding Harden, it’s only a matter of time until there’s a whistle. This is a real thing. Curry has to stay on the court. He can’t give away any stupid fouls where he has nothing really to gain anyway by reaching. 

Last thing: Curry has been a bit more of a streaky shooter this season. He shot over 43 percent from 3, so we’re splitting hairs for sure, but 10 times this season he missed 10 or more 3-pointers in a game, which is more than twice the amount of 10-miss games he had in any of the previous four seasons. He also had 12 games in which he shot 30 percent or less from 3 on at least nine attempts, which ties his high over the past five season. 

In two of Golden State’s three losses in last year’s conference finals, Curry shot a combined 3-for-16 from 3. Durant might be the better scorer and overall player, but Curry is still the Warriors’ engine and when he isn’t in rhythm, they are mortal. Golden State’s defense just hasn’t been the same this season. It’s not to say they can’t turn it on, but if they didn’t turn it on consistently against the Clippers, it’s hard to believe they’re suddenly going to put the clamps on the Rockets. Bottom line: They need to score points. They need Curry to be Curry. Even one or two cold games could give the Rockets the edge they need. 

Rest, recovery and revenge

All three of these things are working against the Warriors. First, Houston finished off its first-round series in five games, while the Warriors needed six. That means three days of rest prior to Game 1 for the Rockets, while the Warriors only got Saturday off after finally eliminating the Clippers on Friday night. 

And that Saturday wasn’t exactly a great day for Golden State, either. As mentioned above, Curry and Thompson both came in to receive treatment on their ankles and both are considered questionable for Game 1. There is no way to tell whether they can recover in time to play in Game 1, but even if they do, it’s relatively safe to say neither will be 100 percent. 

Meanwhile, the Rockets are healthy and in position to reap the potential benefits of falling to the No. 4 seed. When the happened, a lot of people thought Houston really messed up by having to face the Warriors one round earlier, but in fact, one round earlier means a fresher James Harden, who has to carry such a heavy load — and we know wore down at least a little bit in last year’s seven-game conference finals. And now the Warriors are hobbled? Yeah, the fresh factor is definitely on Houston’s side.

And last but not least, perhaps the most important factor of them all in this series: Revenge. We can talk about matchups and Xs and Os all day long, but these teams pretty much know each other inside and out. Nobody is going to fool anyone. To a large extend, this series is going to be about the old basketball adages of flat-out making more shots and wanting it more, and the team that lost Games 6 and 7 last year after losing Chris Paul has one hell of a chip on its shoulder. Look at the chip Damian Lillard carried with him into the first round this year after being swept in the playoffs last year. A star NBA player like Harden, and a team as good as the Rockets with something to prove is a dangerous animal. The Warriors definitely have their work cut out for them. 

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