3:30 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Golden State -13.5, Over/Under: 225
It’s rare that you get a rematch of the previous year’s Conference Finals this early, let alone in a One/ Eight matchup, but that is the reality that is this First Round Series between the top-seeded Golden State Warriors and Eight-Seeded Houston Rockets. Needless to say, a great deal has changed since the Dubs ousted Clutch City in five games en route to hoisting thier first Larry O’Brien Trophy in forty years. Starting with the Warriors (73-9, 1st in Pacific Division), all they did was break the Chicago Bulls’ hallowed single-season record for victories, earning an astonishing seventy-three wins. And as if captivating the basketball world for five long months wasn’t enough, they don’t even have enough time to celebrate properly, for now they must win sixteen more or else it was all for naught. Don’t think so? Just ask any member of the New England Patriots how they feel about the 2007 campaign. Anyways, getting back to hoops, there is no reason to believe that this team isn’t the prohibitive favorite to successfully defend their crown. If the staggering win total wasn’t enough, let’s take a moment to run down the numbers on the offensive end, where Steve Kerr’s charges have proven to be second to none in many a category. Simply put, this team is the definition of elite; Golden State sits atop the league in scoring (114.9), field goal percentage (48.7%), two-point field goal percentage (52.8%), three-point field goals made (1,077) and attempted (2,592), three-point field goal percentage (41.6%), assists (28.9), and effective field goal percentage (56.3%), which is weighted for the value of the money ball. Unsurprisingly, at the forefront has been Stephen Curry, the reigning MVP, who believe it or not has apparently taken his already ridiculous game to another level; Curry led the NBA in scoring at 30.1 points per game on a career-high 50.4% shooting from the field, including a whopping 45.4% from beyond the arc, 5.4 rebounds, and 6.7 assists. He also led the league in both free-throw shooting (90.8%) for the second year in a row, and steals (2.1). However, all anyone wants to talk about with this kid is otherworldly accuracy from distance, where for the fourth consecutive season, he paced the league in three-pointers made; the 27-year old shattered his previous league record of 286 three-pointers, netting an insane 402 treys, pushing the single-season record into another stratosphere altogether. Don’t expect him to slow down against the Rockets, for during the Regular Season he torched them for 30.0 points per game on 53.8% shooting, including 11-of-25 shooting from long-range (44.0%), along with 6.0 rebounds and 7.5 assists in two meetings with Houston, both of which were victories. As a team, the Warriors have found very little resistance from tonight’s opponent, sweeping through their three encounters during the year with relative ease. In those meetings, the defending champions outscored Houston by an average margin of 12.3 points on 47.9% shooting from the field, including 38.6% from downtown, while dishing out 29.7 assists, compared to committing just 12.7 turnovers, which is well below their season average of 15.2 (24th Overall) . However, the x-factor tonight, and in this series moving forward, is the advantage they hold on the glass; the Dubs have absolutely owned the boards against Houston this season, besting them by 4.6 rebounds per meeting, while averaging 12.3 of the offensive variety, which is unfair given they shoot at such a high percentage. Versatile Power Forward Draymond Green has played a rather sizeable role in this factor, averaging a near triple-double against the Rockets, with 9.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 9.5 assists in those three contests. In fact, back on New Year’s Eve in a 114-110 victory at the Toyota Center, Green did just that, registering ten points, eleven rebounds, and sixteen assists, the fifth of his twelve triple-doubles in 2015-2016. In fact, the 25-year old became the first player in NBA History to record 1,000 points, over 500 rebounds, 500 assists, 100 steals, and 100 blocks in a single season. Yeah, we get it. This team is LOADED.
Meanwhile, since being eliminated by the eventual champions in the Western Conference Finals, the Rockets (41-41, 4th in Southwest Division) have done little more than trend in the opposite direction, barely getting into the Playoffs after the Utah Jazz struggled down the stretch. In the face of a mercy killing, which is what many expect will happen when they face the Warriors, let’s take a look back at the 2015-2016 campaign in Clutch City, and what in the hell went wrong for a team harboring legitimate championship aspirations. From Opening Night the vibe from this team was that of an unsettled one, as they lost seven of their first eleven games, including four straight, which led to the shocking firing of Head Coach Kevin McHale, who was replaced by his assistant J.B. Bickerstaff, in what reeked of a decision made in panic. Bubbling beneath the surface was the growing tensions in the locker room between star Shooting Guard James Harden (29.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 1.7 steals) and All-Star Center Dwight Howard (13.7 points, 11.8 rebounds, 1.0 steals, 1.6 blocks), which only continued to get worse as the season progressed. Apparently, relations got so bad between the two that the Front Office placed the latter on the Trading Block, and very nearly sent him on his way before, eventually deciding that the big man would be more valuable maning the middle in an attempt to return to the postseason. At this point, it’s become a legitimate discussion as to whether or not Management made the correct decision. Holding an Early Termination Option in his contract, Howard is almost certainly gone once his team is eliminated, underscoring the point that Houston was unable to receive anything in compensation for moving on from him all the more troublesome. And at the end of the day, what are they really getting by keeping him in the short term? After back and knee injuries, the 11-year veteran is a shell of the three-time Defensive Player of the Year he was earlier in his career, evidenced by just how bad the Rockets have been on that particular end of the floor. After putting together a solid performance in that regard during the previous season, they have flat-lined across the board, allowing 106.4 points (25th Overall) on 45.9% shooting from the field (19th Overall), including 50.4% shooting from within the three-point arc (24th Overall) and 36.1% from beyond it (21st Overall), while permitting 24.6 assists (29th Overall), and getting outrebounded by 1.5 boards per game. Furthermore, no team has allowed the opposition to secure more offensive rebounds (11.8). Did we mention that Dwight Howard is their starting Center? These are all statistics that he should be able to directly improve by himself, making his team’s retention of his services all the more puzzling. As aggressive as their front Office has been in recent years, it’s surprising that they would stand pat at this point, particularly when it’s difficult to see them playing any worse defensively without him. At the very least get something for him in a trade, instead of being left empty-handed. Just ask the Lakers how they feel about that. Anyways, another problem for this team has been the fact that they simply can’t defend for stretches without managing to foul their opponent; Bickerstaff’s charges have committed the third-most fouls in the league (21.8), with opponents attempting 24.6 Free-Throws a night (24.6, 24th Overall), nearly negating their own prolific shooting at the Charity Stripe in the process (29.4, 1st Overall). And at the end of the day, that is why this series presents such a difficult matchup for them. The things they do well, they don’t defend well, and the Warriors have been able to exploit them with merciless precision. Houston ranks third in the league in three-pointers made (10.7), yet has allowed the third-most threes against them (9.7). They also have made the third-most Free-Throws this season (20.4), but have seen their opponents make 18.6 of their attempts (23rd Overall). They want to speed the game up, but Golden State is dead lethal when that happens. The bottom line here folks, is that this series is the very definition of a mismatch, and will in all likelihood be over before you know it.