The two best teams in the NBA, the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors, will meet in the Western Conference finals on Monday night. This isn’t a surprise, of course; these two teams were the favorites to win the conference when betting odds were released over the summer. But it will be something new for the Warriors, who have not faced a playoff challenger as good as the Rockets since Coach Steve Kerr took over in 2015.
Let’s start with the basics. Houston won 65 games during the regular season, the most of any postseason opponent Golden State has had over the past four years. The Rockets scored 114.6 points per 100 possessions, the 11th highest since 1979-80, the first year the NBA adopted the three-point line, while shooting 46 percent from the field and 36 percent behind the arc, giving them an effective field goal rate of 55.1 percent, the ninth-highest over that span and second highest in 2017-18 after the Warriors. Golden State’s edge in offensive efficiency against Houston, therefore, will be its lowest since the 2015 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers and the only time, at least on paper, they are the lessor of the two; the Warriors scored 113.6 points per 100 possessions during the 2017-18 regular season.
The Rockets also have the edge in offensive efficiency during the playoffs, scoring a league-high 111.1 points per 100 possessions, 2.3 points more than the Warriors. The Rockets most frequently used postseason lineup of James Harden, Chris Paul, Clint Capela, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker has outscored opponents by 19.1 net points per 100 possessions over 237 playoff minutes. However, Golden State’s offense is potent, too — the Warriors’ “Hamptons Five” lineup, featuring Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala, has outscored opponents by almost 41 net points per 100 possessions while also allowing fewer than 87 points per 100 possessions in its 54 minutes. And its overall postseason net rating (plus-9.5) is slightly higher due to better defense. This isn’t to say the Rockets’ defense is bad — they have the second-best defensive rating in the playoffs — but it does reinforce what we already know: These teams are very close in terms of overall talent.
“They are taking the challenge and they’re embracing it,” Kerr said of his team. “But we seem to be at our best when we are threatened. That’s been kind of the M.O. of this team. And we’re definitely threatened.”
Not only is Golden State threatened, you might want to consider it an underdog. Houston outscored its opponents by a league-high 8.6 points per game more than an average team after adjusting for strength of schedule, also know as the Simple Rating System. The Warriors, meanwhile, had an adjusted scoring margin of 5.8 per game, which means if these two teams met on a neutral court the Rockets should be favored by 2.4 points. Not only is Golden State’s SRS nearly half of what it was the past few seasons, this year marks the first time since 2015 it is lower than its opponent.
A two-point difference may sound small, but after adjusting for home-court advantage, that makes the Warriors a 5.4-point underdog on the road, which implies a 36 percent chance to win, and a 50-50 shot at home — a huge departure from the overwhelming odds in Golden State’s favor in previous playoff appearances.
“We won two championships in three years. We don’t have to run around talking about how bad we want to play somebody,” Green told Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle. “We want to win another championship, and it don’t matter who is in the way of that.”
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