NBA Playoffs Preview: Warriors vs. Rockets

Will the defending champion Golden State Warriors get a tough test from the Houston Rockets in the first round?

The Golden State Warriors were fantastic in 2014-2015, posting a record of 67-15 en route to their first NBA title in 40 years.

In 2015-2016, the Warriors have somehow managed to be even better, capping off a historic season with one last win to bring their record to 73-9, breaking the 20-year-old record of 72-10 set by Michael Jordan's 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.

The most impressive part is that they managed to do it with an interim head coach for 43 of those games. Given, Luke Walton looks like he has a bright future as a head coach and the foundation and system was already in place, but it's impressive nonetheless.

The Warriors also went a substantial period of time missing either Andre IguodalaAndrew Bogut, or Festus Ezeli. Iguodala missed 17 games, Bogut missed 12, and Ezeli missed 36 games -- many of which overlapped.

So how did they do it? For starters, Stephen Curry was otherworldly. As great as Curry played in his MVP campaign last year, he reached another level this season and has another MVP trophy on the way. He shattered his own record for most three-pointers made in a single season (286) by knocking down an absurd 402. He also became the only player in NBA history to average over 30 points per game while also playing fewer than 35 minutes per game. And of course, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and the rest of the team deserve plenty of credit for the Warriors' success this year.

As for the Houston Rockets, things have not gone as well. Coming off a series loss to these same Warriors in the Conference Finals last year, expectations were high heading into the season. But the Rockets stumbled to a 4-7 start, which marked the end of the Kevin McHale era in Houston. J.B. Bickerstaff subsequently took over as interim head coach, and it was a rough season to say the least. Reports came out during the year that both James Harden and Dwight Howard tried to get the other traded. If that wasn't weird enough, Michael Beasley left his team in China to join Houston in the latter part of the year and might actually have saved the season for the Rockets.

But throughout the turmoil, Houston still managed to make the playoffs. Even if the playoff spot was clinched on the last day of the season, with a 41-41 record, they're still alive. Now we have a rematch of the 2014 Conference Finals in the first round. Last year's MVP versus last year's runner-up for the MVP. If nothing else, this will be a fun, fast-paced series with a ton of scoring.

Golden State Warriors (1)

Record: 73-9
nERD: 80.8
Championship Odds: 27.6%

Houston Rockets (8)

Record: 41-41
nERD: 51.0
Championship Odds: 0.3%

Regular Season Series - Warriors 3, Rockets 0

Golden State swept the season series against Houston for the second consecutive season, winning all four matchups last season and all three games this season. In the three games this season, the Warriors won by margins of 24, 4, and 13, respectively. That's a point-differential average of just above 12 per game, so it wasn't particularly close.

The first matchup was each team's second game of the season: a 112-92 victory for the Warriors. Curry played just 27 minutes in the contest, posting a line of 25 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists, on 9-of-15 from the field. Outside of that, it was a balanced effort for Golden State, who committed just eight turnovers all game.

It was a rough outing for Harden, who scored 16 points on 4-of-18 shooting, including 1-of-10 from three-point range. Harden turned the ball over four times and had a plus/minus of -22, the lowest in the game. However, he did record seven rebounds and five assists. Dwight Howard was limited to 22 minutes of action, managing just 9 points and 7 rebounds.

The second matchup of the season was a much closer game, with tempers flaring throughout. The Warriors were without Curry in this one, who was out with a leg injury. Golden State was still led by interim head coach Luke Walton and were on a back-to-back, coming off a blowout loss to the Dallas Mavericks. The Warriors were 30-2 coming into the game, while Houston was 16-18, led by their own interim head coach in J.B. Bickerstaff.

Houston fought hard and played well for much of the game and had the lead with a few minutes left in the third quarter. Harden poured in 30 points and also added 5 rebounds, 5 assists, and 3 steals. Howard also played much better this time around, scoring 21 points and grabbing 13 rebounds. Klay Thompson led the way for the Warriors, posting 38 points in Curry's absence on an efficient 16-of-27 from the field. Draymond Green recorded a triple-double, tallying 10 points, 11 rebounds, and 16 assists.

The third and final matchup of the regular season was a 123-110 victory for the Warriors. Harden went off for 37 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists while Howard had a nice game himself with 16 points and 15 rebounds. Curry scored 35 points while also recording 9 assists and 5 rebounds, and it was a balanced effort from the rest of the Warriors.

Golden State opened with a huge first quarter, outscoring Houston 42-27. But the Rockets answered back in a big way, outscoring the Warriors 39-27 in the second quarter. Houston also outscored the Warriors in the third quarter but were severely outplayed in the fourth, which cost them the game.

How the Warriors Can Win

The Warriors can win this series very simply: by doing what they've been doing. With the run they are currently on, it's safe to say that they have a pretty good handle on things -- particularly when it comes to the Rockets. Golden State has won 11 of the last 12 games against Houston, dating back to last season.

More specifically, the Warriors will, of course, continue to rely on Curry, who certainly will repeat as league MVP. He has posted some big games against Houston in the past and could be in line for a couple of big games in this series. The Warriors move Curry around a ton off the ball, using screens all over the place as Curry zig-zags through traffic. This gives him many open catch-and-shoot looks. Among 121 players with at least 3.0 catch-and-shoot opportunities per game this season, Curry's 70.1 Effective Field Goal Percentage was best.

While on the ball, look for the Warriors to try to get Houston to switch Harden onto Curry as much as possible. This will allow Curry to either make something happen himself or by driving by Harden and creating for others.

Golden State also likes to get Patrick Beverley switched onto Klay Thompson. While Beverley is a fantastic defender in his own right, Thompson owns a six-inch height advantage, which can be exploited on the block. Draymond Green and the small ball effect will be in full force, with Green often running the fast break or being a facilitator for the offense with his passing ability and as an enforcer with his screens and hard-nosed defense.

Other than that, Golden State's offense is highly predicated on ball movement. They always look for the better pass that leads to the better shot and lead the NBA with 28.9 assists per game. And, of course, there is the three-point shot. The Warriors knock down 13.1 threes per game at a 41.6% clip. Both marks are best in the NBA.

Warriors Player to Watch - Harrison Barnes

Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are the obvious players to watch out for; they are each All-NBA caliber players who have had a huge hand in the Warriors' historic season, but the unheralded player who can have an impact on this series is Harrison Barnes.

Much of the fanbase base was shocked when Barnes turned down a contract extension of four years and $64 million at the beginning of the season, but he hoped, in a contract year, that he'd put together a big season and prove he is worth at least that much money and maybe more. Unfortunately for Barnes, that didn't happen. He saw a career low in games played and a year-over-year decrease in field goal and three-point percentage. Per 36 minutes, he also saw a decline in rebounds, blocks, and steals.

But during the final stretch of the season, "Playoff Barnes," as Warriors fans call him when he is playing well, has been making appearances. Before the April 10th win over the San Antonio Spurs, Barnes put together 10 consecutive games with double-digit points, the only time he's done that all season. Starting with the March 25th win against the Dallas Mavericks, Barnes has shot an efficient 57% from the field, while also averaging 14.0 points and 6.0 rebounds per game, all well over his season average.

In the two games against Houston this season, Barnes is averaging 15.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game, while shooting 59% from the field. To close out the Rockets in the playoffs in 2014, Barnes scored 24 points and added 7 rebounds, so he has proven that this is a team he can play well against. If Barnes can continue to play this well throughout the playoffs, it gives the Warriors even more ammunition in their quest to repeat as NBA champions.

How the Rockets Can Win

Based on recent results, it's going to be an uphill battle for Houston to win this series. They've been completely outmatched in the past, but that doesn't mean they don't have a shot. Harden is going to have to be better than ever and also be the best player in this series. When Houston beat Golden State in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, he scored 45 points. In Game 1 and Game 2 of that series, Harden nearly posted a triple-double in each game, and Houston only lost by four points and one point in each of those games. It's asking a lot of Harden, but he is going to have to score upwards of 35 points and be in triple-double territory if the Rockets are going to win four times in seven tries.

But Harden also can't do it by himself. If the Rockets can find a way to solve the Warriors' small ball riddle, Dwight Howard is going to have to be a major factor in doing so. Other big men have failed to this point, but he's the second-best player on the team, and Houston won't be able to afford his being off the court when Golden State goes small. If he can abuse Draymond Green in the post and help the Rockets win the rebounding and second-chance points battles, that'll help Houston's chances. To a lesser extent, the same goes for Clint Capela.

Harden and the rest of the offense are going to have to cut down on the turnovers drastically. Turnovers often lead to a fast break for the other team, and that other team happens to thrive on the break. So limiting the amount of turnovers will go a long way to help Houston in this series.

Lastly, Trevor Ariza and Beverley will need to hound Curry at every opportunity: go over every screen, give Curry no space, and be relentless on defense every single minute of the game. They have to be physical and set the tone early. Bump him when he is off the ball and make him work for every basket he gets. Curry can create for others, which he will do, but Houston has to live with that rather than letting Curry go off.

All of that combined with just hoping the Warriors have a bad shooting night or two, and the Rockets could steal this series.

Rockets Player to Watch - James Harden

Unlike in the player to watch section for the Warriors, this isn't going to be about a role player who averages a dozen or so points per game. Sorry, Michael Beasley. If Houston stands any chance to win this series, they are going to need James Harden to play the best basketball of his life.

The thing is that Harden has actually fared pretty well against Golden State. In his past 12 games against the Warriors, Harden is averaging 27.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game, which is par for the course for him. His field goal percentage of 44.1% and his turnovers per game of 3.9 against the Warriors are also right in line with his typical averages. So while those are solid numbers, they haven't been good enough to beat the Warriors more than once in 12 tries.

So what else could Harden possibly do? It may be unfair to ask, but he has find a way to be better. Specifically, he needs to be more efficient and limit the turnovers -- especially with how much he has turned the ball over this season. Harden set a new NBA record with turnovers this season, with a staggering 374, averaging 4.6 per game. He'll need to cut that number at least in half and probably a bit more. He'll also need to raise his field goal percentage to at least 50% most likely.

As we saw in the NBA Finals last season, even LeBron James playing with absurdly high usage and volume wasn't enough to get the job done. Absolutely, it can be argued that James' teammates, like Harden's, need to do more. That is certainly true. It's a team sport, and role players are essential to a team's success, but it starts and ends with the superstar players.

Series Prediction

As mentioned already, dating back to last season, these two teams have met 12 times. The Warriors have won 11 of those 12 games. Currently, Golden State is playing better than ever, and Houston is playing their worst basketball since Harden arrived. These two teams are trending in different directions, and it's hard to see this series being very competitive.

Houston was a much better basketball team in the Western Conference Finals last season, and while Golden State was formidable, they weren't as dominant as they are now. In that series, the Rockets only won one game. With how each team is playing currently, how is Houston going to win any more games than they did last season?

It'll be too much Curry, too much Draymond, too much Thompson. The Warriors are better offensively, much better defensively, and much better coached. They'll cruise in this one.

According to our algorithms: Warriors are 86.48% favorites.

My prediction: Warriors in 4.