The Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets appear to be on a collision course in the Western Conference finals. Entering Tuesday night’s games, the Rockets hold a half-game lead over the Warriors for the top seed in the West, each team laying waste to its other opponents. Golden State outscores opponents by a league-leading 10.6 net points per 100 possessions, while Houston is close behind at No. 2, producing a net rating of plus-8.9.
The Rockets won two of their three games against the Warriors and are only the fourth team to beat Golden State twice in a season since Steve Kerr became coach in 2014. That’s no fluke, and Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni may have what it takes to slow the Warriors down if they meet in the playoffs: Eric Gordon and Luc Mbah a Moute.
Among the two-man lineups playing at least 40 minutes against Golden State this season, Gordon and Mbah a Moute have performed the best, leading the Rockets to a net rating of plus-27. Gordon also is part of the seventh-best (plus-15 with P.J. Tucker) and 13th-best (plus-10 with Chris Paul) two-man pairings against the Warriors.
Gordon is, in many ways, the perfect complement to James Harden, a leading contender for this year’s MVP award. His ability to spot up off the ball and score off the dribble is ideal: He’s scoring 1.1 points per possession on the former (82nd percentile) and 0.9 points per possession as the ballhandler in the pick and roll (77th percentile), hitting better than 34 percent from the three-point line. Defensively, he has helped stop Golden State’s superstars — Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thomson and Draymond Green — in their tracks.
Those four have scored 25 points combined in three games against the Rockets while using 127 possessions against Gordon. They have just 14 total points over 104 possessions against Mbah a Moute, with none making more than one three-pointer against the 6-foot-8 forward.
|Points per possession|
|2017-18 season||vs. Eric Gordon||vs. Luc Mbah a Moute||vs. everyone else|
The success for Houston lies in Gordon and Mbah a Moute’s ability to defend the things the Warriors do best in the half court: They fight through screens, cover the open man on the perimeter and, if the situation breaks down, stop players in isolation.
The Warriors have taken 822 shot attempts off screens, over 200 more shots than the Atlanta Hawks, who rank second, with a league-leading effective field goal rate of 58 percent. Houston allows an effective field goal rate of just 46 percent against, with Gordon and Mbah a Moute ranking in the 74th and 85th percentile against the play type. They also do their best to contest three-point shots, getting their hand in the face of long-range shooters at least twice per game. In isolation, Gordon ranks in the 70th percentile for points allowed per possession, and Mbah a Moute ranks in the top 6 percent of the NBA, holding opponents to 6-for-23 shooting with a 16 percent turnover rate.
The Warriors score a league-leading 114 points per 100 possessions yet often lose when they fail to top 102 points per 100 possessions; their record in that situation is 2-7. Shaving off points from the Warriors’ high-octane offense, even on just a handful of possessions, could be the difference between the Rockets reaching the NBA Finals for the first time since 1995 and retooling in the offseason for another run at the champs.