The Rockets Aren’t Out…Yet

James Harden scored 41 points, shooting 58% from the field. Chris Paul added 23 more on 47% shooting. And the Rockets still lost to the Warriors by 13 points in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.

The Rockets got off to a fantastic start with 6 quick Harden points, one savage Clint Capela block on a Kevin Durant floater, and one Draymond Green technical foul. Yeah, well it all looked good at that point. But that was before Kevin Durant went into assassin mode and Klay Thompson started raining down fire from 3-point range. The Rockets did almost everything possible, but there was just a point late in the third quarter where the Warriors inched forward just enough and held onto their lead.

Watching Game 1 last night, there seemed like a few things that need to change if the Rockets want to get back in this series.

Clint Capela absolutely has to make an impact, defensively and on the glass. He did record two blocks and a steal that came when he got switched on to Steph Curry out on the perimeter. The Rockets out-rebounded the Warriors 42 to 37, but Capela never really seemed to make an impact individually, grabbing six lonely rebounds. And the Rockets need him too. Center is the only starter position where the Rockets have a sizable advantage. When the Rockets go small with PJ Tucker or super small with Luc Mbah a Moute at the 5, the Rockets offense loses a vertical dimension. Capela is a monster on pick-and-roll lobs, but that mismatch never really got exploited in Game 1.

When James Harden or Chris Paul got into a set half-court offense, Capela would come over and they’d get a switch that put a guy like Kevon Looney defending Harden or CP3. Don’t get me wrong, Looney had some respectable defensive possessions on the perimeter, but he’s not going to be reliable out there; no one is, except for maybe Kawhi, LeBron James, or Kevin Durant (even though Harden’s stepback 3 cooked him a couple of times). The one thing though, that didn’t happen until really wait, was Harden or Paul really attacking the pick-and-roll and rolling to the basket with Capela. Now, that isolation drive and look for the corner 3 shooter is the Rockets’ staple, but so is getting, and exploiting, mismatches. Lots of possessions went switch, Harden or Paul dribbling for 15 seconds, then rushing a pass to Trevor Ariza or Eric Gordon for a bad three. The Rockets had 3 shot clock violations, all of which came from that recipe.

Another reason that Capela needs to get involved is because of what happens when he leaves the court. Nene is almost unplayable against Golden State, Ryan Anderson isn’t much better, but he can at least shoot, and that leaves PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute as the Rockets’ second and third options center. Two guys who combined for 1 point in 51 minutes on 0 for 9 shooting. Factor in Trevor Ariza also going 1 for 5 on 3-pointers and the Rockets’ secondary players went 1 for 9 from downtown. That’s a drain on any team; especially for Mbah a Moute who might be shooting himself out of the rotation despite a career year from deep. He’s 2 for 12 in the playoffs on 3-pointers and 7 for 27 overall. Those numbers are, to put it bluntly, not good. PJ Tucker wasn’t particularly good either. He ended up drawing the Kevin Durant matchup for most of the game but just couldn’t overcome the five or six-inch height difference. If neither Tucker or Mbah a Moute is making a huge defensive impact, their shooting woes could be what continues to sink the Rockets’ offense.

Nothing that the Rockets change offensively is going to make a difference unless something changes defensively. Durant scoring 37, that’s going to happen. But Klay scoring 28? I know that is also going to happen sometimes, but Klay is the one the Rockets need to shut down. With Steph seemingly limited, both offensively and defensively, Klay is the ignition of the Warriors’ perimeter offense. Draymond Green is welcome to shoot away, but Klay makes most of the 3s he takes and that has a ripple effect on the Rockets’ defense. Any sort of pump fake then drive collapses the Rockets and they end up really out of position, which is never good.

Kevin Durant is going to score, a lot. Trevor Ariza is probably the Rockets’ best option defensively, but he picked up 5 fouls really quickly in Game 1 and only played 23 minutes. I expect that we’ll see Ariza open up on Durant and do what he can to limit him individually. The reason that it’s “okay” to let Durant go off is that he doesn’t quite ignite the fast-paced, three happy Warriors offense. When Durant gets hot, like last night, he likes to score from the post, or on pull-up jumpers, which for him are a very reliable shot; that style of play is the exact type of basketball the Rockets play, heavy isolation. And straight up, the Rockets are going to take Harden and Paul going blow for blow with Durant. If the Rockets can force the Warriors into playing the type of basketball they prefer, they have a very good shot. The best way to do that is shutting down Klay and inviting Durant to shot, no matter how terrifying that sounds on paper.

The Warriors are always supremely collected and never look harried, that confidence comes with being the reigning NBA champions. The Rockets on the other hand, do not have either that confidence or that championship experience. That lack reared its ugly head in the fourth quarter. James Harden and Chris Paul stopped taking their time to get off a good shot and started to force bad passes out of the pick-and-roll. Carelessness like that leads to easy Warrior buckets which in turn puts even more pressure on Harden and Paul to make a play. That self-defeating cycle was the Rockets’ downfall in 2017 and a big part of their Game 1 loss.

Beyond their 13 turnovers and few poor defensive rotations, decisions, and matchups, the Rockets played well. James Harden’s step-back three was as advertised and Chris Paul played his secondary play-maker role extremely well. The Rockets’ season goes as Harden goes, but he needs Clint Capela to be a matchup nightmare, offensively and defensively, and for something else to change defensively. Playing the Warriors is always going to be a roller coaster offensively, for both teams, but Mike D’Antoni needs to make a decision on shutting them down. With four All-Stars, one of Steph, KD, Klay, or Draymond is always going to be shooting well, but the Rockets need to take someone out of the game. Giving KD the opportunity to shoot a lot might bite the Rockets in the butt, but it gives them the best possible shot of matching offensive blows.

Sophomore studying Sport Management and Economics at the University of Texas. Writing about Baseball from an analytical and scouting perspective