Series Preview: Rockets aim to finally knock off rival Warriors

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James Harden and the Rockets are looking strong as the West semifinals near.

The Houston Rockets made the Golden State Warriors sweat bullets in the 2018 Western Conference finals, and bring a pair of All-Stars who can cause trouble once again. Meanwhile, the two-time defending champion Warriors are seemingly less than perfect after a shaky first-round ouster of the LA Clippers.

Star power in this series abounds with James Harden, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Chris Paul all here. Both teams suffered first-round hiccups, but aside from no DeMarcus Cousins for Golden State, they enter this series healthy. 

But like last spring’s series, this one will be largely affected by one factor: can the Rockets hit their 3-pointers? If they can, the Warriors could be confronted by their biggest threat in the Steve Kerr era since the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers. If they can’t, this will be over quickly.

If the Rockets can make a respectable amount of 3-pointers and do so with efficiency, the Warriors will be pressed into matching that firepower. It’s a make-or-miss league once the playoffs begin and nowhere is that more true than in this series.

The Rockets are dead set on their style of play: Harden in isolation and spread floor … or bust. The Warriors, meanwhile, are all about setting screens and star power. That has served them well for five-plus playoff runs. Is there any reason to think it won’t serve them well in this series? That’s up to Houston to decide.

Harden and Paul are too good to not have a championship by now, and it’s not for the lack of trying. The timing of their careers — plus the Warriors’ dynasty — has denied them a ring thus far.

No team will be rooting for a Durant free agency defection from the Warriors this summer than Houston. But that’s about next year. How about now?

Three things to watch

1.Will the Warriors copy Utah’s method for defending James Harden? Harden insists he’s seen every defense known to man. But in the first round, the Jazz offered a twist. A defender was attached to Harden’s left hip and shadowed him on his strong side. The idea was to minimize his left hand, force him right and hope for the best. It worked to a degree as the league’s top scorer in the regular season shot 36 percent in the first round. That won’t work against the Warriors.

2. Can Paul finally rise to the occasion? He’s headed to the Hall of Fame someday. Will he bring a championship ring with him? This isn’t a make-or-break year for Paul in that regard, but he’s not getting any younger and his body remains suspect until proven otherwise. Paul has reached one conference final in his career. A big performance against the Warriors, coupled with good health and a win, will go a long way to repair his reputation for coming up short.

3. Will the Warriors’ two-headed center overcome the Rockets’ one? Golden State received positive vibes in the paint from Andrew Bogut and Kevon Looney late in the regular season. But the Clippers’ Montrezl Harrell devoured them in the first round. Bogut does bring a defensive presence and Looney is active on the pick and roll (and a willing mid-range shooter). Their goal is to limit Rockets center Clint Capela’s lob-catching and impact on the series and keep Houston from having a Big Three.

The number to know

This is what John Schuhmann will provide for each series. Don’t worry about this as you do your capsules, but what this will be is some kind of deep, well-researched stat about the series that your average fan isn’t going to know.150 or so words max

— John Schuhmann

The pick

More than any other team in the West, this is the one that spooks the Warriors the most. Houston may be the only squad capable of shaking up Golden State. That alone is why the Rockets won’t win this series. The Warriors can’t be caught off-guard and won’t look beyond Houston as they did against the Clippers. A motivated Warriors team is dangerous one and perhaps an unbeatable one as well. Look for Durant, Curry and Thompson to take turns coming up big at various points, more than the Rockets can handle. Warriors in 6.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him  here .

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