Entering the season the Houston Rockets said they had one thing and one thing only on their minds: the ‘pursuit’ of a title.
Suffice to say, following Houston’s embarrassing home opener thumping at the hands of Denver they proved that statement wasn’t 100% accurate. While it’s reasonable to assume the Rockets simply underestimated the Nuggets, the more logical explanation is their focus had prematurely shifted to game two of their schedule. That game comes this evening featuring their current nemesis: the Golden State Warriors.
That’s right, the team who swept Houston 4-0 during the 2014-15 regular season. The same team who knocked Houston out of the playoffs on their journey to winning the championship. And the team who features Stephen Curry, the reigning MVP who was surrounded by depth and healthy players on route to beating out James Harden, the runner-up for the NBA’s most coveted individual honor.
For 5 months and 3 days the primary focus of each Rockets player, coach and management member has been the Golden State Warriors. Fueling them was recollection of their pain and disappointment as they rehabbed injuries, worked on bettering their games, created offensive and defensive strategies and drafted, re-signed and added players to bolster depth. Along the way a series of what if’s have crossed each of their minds with this evening providing the first litmus test to answer the Rockets questions.
To that end, let’s take a look at how the teams match-up:
Venue: Toyota Center
Game Time: 9:30 PM EST – 8:30 PM CT
TV: ROOT and ESPN
Radio: 790 AM
Last season the Rockets swept the Nuggets posting wins of :
- November 8th GSW 98 – 87 HOU
- December 10th HOU 93-105 GSW
- January 17th GSW 131-106 HOU
- January 21st HOU 113-126 GSW
- Andrew Bogut – suffered a concussion vs. New Orleans and will need to pass the concussion protocol test prior to be cleared to play again
- Kevon Looney – hip, targeting a January return
- Donatas Motiejunas – still recovering from off season back surgery, no update on scheduled return date
Grading the Match-ups:
Point Guard – Curry vs Lawson:
One would have thought playing his old team in his inaugural game as a Rocket would have fueled Lawson to put on a spectacular display, but his effort could be deemed lacking and his production was slightly better than mediocre. Lawson did manage to connect on 2 of 3 shots from behind the arc for half of his points, dished out 6 assists and grabbed 4 rebounds in 37 minutes. The concerning portion of his play however was his negative point differential of minus -17 and 3 turnovers. Naturally his on court chemistry will take time to gel as he develops an organic on court shorthand with his new teammates. Unfortunately, that process will take longer than one practice and tonight he faces Curry who scored 24 points in the first quarter of his home opener.
Nor did Lawson do himself any favors by publicly fueling Curry with comments he didn’t have to guard anyone in the post season. The reality is there is some truth to this statement as Jrue Holiday was out for the Pelicans, Mike Conley spent a portion of their series injured, Patrick Beverley was out for Houston and Kyrie Irving got injured in game 1 of the finals. That’s not to say Curry wouldn’t or couldn’t have bested any of those players at their full capacity, it’s simply reflective of the situation. Still, as much as you might enjoy the diminutive Lawson’s moxy it likely served to fuel Curry to make his full reply on the Toyota Center hardwood this evening.
Edge: Stephen Curry Though admirable Lawson wanted to stand up for his buddy Harden, he might have been better served by saving his talking for the court. Of note, last season the one game Denver beat Golden State was the one Lawson didn’t play in.
Shooting Guard – Klay Thompson vs James Harden
In the 4 losses last season Thompson did a decent job of making Harden’s life difficult especially behind the arc where he shot under 25%. As much as Harden and Lawson are still figuring out how to marry their talents on the court, it would be unusual for Harden to have back to back poor shooting performances. Likewise with Lawson now on the floor the Warriors can’t simply game plan just to stop Harden, so that should pay dividends for the Rockets (especially if they bring a more focused energetic effort).
Edge: James Harden
Small Forward – Harrison Barnes vs Trevor Ariza
Barnes and the Warriors mutually agreed to wait until this summer to resolve his rookie contract extension which will make him an restricted free agent. What this will do is allow Barnes to raise his value with a strong productive consistent season. On the other hand Ariza who had been lights out in preseason had an uncharacteristically poor shooting night versus Denver so look for him to rebound.
Sir Charles In Charge
Power Forward: Draymond Green vs. Terrence Jones
Hard to argue Draymond Green is the true emotional leader of the Warriors. He captains the defense often guarding the opponents best player regardless of position and does all the intangibles necessary for his team to register the win.
With neither Jones or Motiejunas coming to terms on their rookie contract extensions the writing appears to be on the wall that at least one will be gone next summer and if Montrezl Harrell turns out to be the real deal it’s more likely to be Jones. Given this, expect to see Jones record solid productive performances all season in an effort to earn the best possible contract.
Edge: Draymond Green – Even with Jones at 100% his best hasn’t reached the level of Green
Center – Dwight Howard vs. Festus Ezeli
Dwight Howard returns from serving his 1-game suspension for exceeding the flagrant fouls allowable in the post season ironically for the foul he committed against Andre Iguodala in game 5. Howard will probably face Ezeli given the concussion Bogut suffered in the Warrior’s opening game. Though that’s gives Howard an edge, it’s somewhat bittersweet as Bogut like Lawson had provided fodder for revenge when he told a radio station he got his championship ring to fit his middle finger in honor of the Clippers and Rockets whining.
Edge: Dwight Howard If fully healthy we’ll get playoff Dwight tonight.
Dwight Howard with a HUGE elbow. Only a flagrant one. https://t.co/2Qgy49flF7
— Sports Vines (@TheSportsVines) May 26, 2015
In a reverse situation of what the Rockets dealt with last game, the Warriors will need to rely on the depth of their bench with Andre Bogut likely out after the concussion he suffered in the opener. The Warriors bench is deep, but the Rockets have added more depth this summer. If the starting line-ups are able to keep each other even then look for the Warriors to play small ball which McHale could counter with a 3-guard line-up or try to wear out via reserves Brewer and Thornton who didn’t play in the Rockets first game?
Slight Edge: Rockets additional depth takes the edge
Keys to Winning:
- Both teams were sloppy with the ball in their opener so look for both to try to clean up that area of their game.
- These 2 teams finished 1st and 2nd in pace last season. What that means is if the squad isn’t careful it can lead to increased turnovers. Therefore the team who protects the rock and plays the better transition defense has the edge. Of note the Warriors replicated their pace effort in their opener, but a sure sign Houston wasn’t playing to their strengths was they had the 25th slowest pace in their first outing. For a team that wants to play even faster this season they have big strides to make to improve this area of their game tonight.
- Make Curry work on defense. Time for Lawson to put his comments to the test and force Curry to have to defend.
- Sure it’s only been one game without Howard in the line-up, but the Rockets finished dead last in defensive rebounding with the Warriors in the middle of the pack but first for offensive and total rebounds. Defensive rebounds lead to quick outlet passes and help boost pace. Of all the areas the Rockets need to improve besides effort this would be the key category.
- Perimeter defense: both teams love the 3-ball, but the Rockets had one of their poorest efforts ever from behind the arc in their opener. Last season the Rockets were great at hitting threes and defending them, they need to be better than great versus the Splash Brothers.
- Maintain emotions – both teams have something to prove: the Rockets want to show Golden State they wouldn’t have been an easy out with a healthy roster and the Warriors want to show them it doesn’t matter. Harden has his issues with Curry and a poor first outing to atone for and Lawson has his claims to back up regarding Curry not having to defend. The loss to Denver was bad for the Rockets who now have added extra pressure on themselves to win, especially since Houston’s next 2 games are a back to back set versus Miami and Oklahoma City. The Rockets can’t afford to get ahead of themselves, but another loss will definitely put them in a bad situation which isn’t where they want to be this early in the season.
The odds makers favor Golden State by 1 point which means the real line is closer to 2.5 points since home teams generally get a 1.5 automatic advantage. Looking at their recent history everything points to Golden State winning especially considering the Rockets are still ironing out their on court chemistry and Howard, while returning didn’t play much in preseason, so may be rusty. Then again there is no way to measure the intangible of revenge or the 6th man of Clutch City. Not wanting to jinx the outcome I’ll simply wish for a close, competitive game.
Make sure you catch up on our entire Team Preview Series, our Houston Rockets Player Profile Series as well as our SCS Round Table Sessions to help you get through the early season. Below you’ll find the links to the Rockets and Warriors season previews and as always stay with Space City Scoop for all things Houston Rockets.
More from Space City Scoop
- Houston Rockets: Ranking the top-five 2021 NBA draft prospects
- Houston Rockets: Jae’Sean Tate is the next Paul George
- Rockets: 4 questions regarding Sterling Brown’s horrific assault
- Why Armoni Brooks could be Rockets GM Rafael Stone’s biggest gem
- How the Rockets have unlocked Jae’Sean Tate’s true potential