5-on-5: Rockets vs. Warriors

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Will the Rockets stay on a hot roll and soar into the NBA Finals? Or will the Golden State Warriors make a first appearance in the title series since 1975? Our 5-on-5 crew breaks down the West finals between the No. 1-seeded Warriors and the No. 2-seeded Rockets.

1. What or who is the key for the Warriors?

J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Andrew Bogut. All of the other stuff, such as the 3-point shooting, will sort itself out. The Warriors need Bogut to deter the James Harden drives and Dwight Howard lobs without fouling. You can fill your house with all the high-tech gadgets you want, but you'll still need paper towels. That's what Bogut is to this team.

Kevin Pelton, ESPN Insider:Bogut avoiding foul trouble. During the season series, which Golden State swept 4-0 with an average margin of plus-15.3 points per game, the Warriors were only plus-2 in the 113 minutes Bogut did not play (including one full game). They were plus-59 in the 79 minutes he did see. Bogut can contain Howard one-on-one while keeping the Golden State offense flowing.

Marc Stein, ESPN.com: The Warriors have to be careful not to fall into their old turnover habits. Live-ball TOs will get the Rockets going in the open court. Running their shooters off the 3-point line and parroting the focus all teams have on trying to defend Harden without fouling is also strongly advised. Yet another thing to watch: Can Harrison Barnes, in the midst of another good playoff run, hurt Houston like he did during the regular season?

Ethan Sherwood Strauss, ESPN.com:Klay Thompson. If Trevor Ariza is going to guard Stephen Curry for major stretches, and if Harden is going to be parked on Barnes, Thompson has an opportunity to score big against shorter opponents. This is to say nothing of Thompson's more important role as the main guy tasked with guarding Harden. This is a big series for the young All-Star.

Calvin Watkins, ESPN.com:I know it's not sexy but if the Warriors can dominate the boards in this series, it should be one of the big keys to them winning. The Warriors were outrebounded just twice in 10 postseason games and split them. Draymond Green has seven 10-plus rebound games and Bogut has three games of 10 or more rebounds this postseason. Bogut, averaging 8.3 rebounds, is a factor here because he's expected to bang up against Howard in the paint. When the Rockets go small, it would be interesting to see how Barnes does.

2. What or who is the key for the Rockets?

Adande: Josh Smith. Kevin McHale started Smith the last three games of the Clippers series and the Rockets won all three. Just saying. He might be the biggest wild card left in the playoffs, but when he's on he gives Houston 3-point shooting, passing and shot-blocking. The possibility of an NBA Finals return to Atlanta is still on the table.

Pelton:Defending the 3-point line. Houston allowed a league-low 32.2 percent shooting from beyond the arc during the regular season, which has actually dropped to 32.0 percent in the playoffs. But 3-point percentage defense tends to be a mirage, and the Warriors made 38.2 percent in head-to-head meetings.

Stein:Why are you being so strict and asking me to limit myself to one area of concern? McHale probably would tell you the same thing as I wrote about G-State. The Warriors run off makes and misses and feast off of turnovers. So good shot selection and limiting turnovers -- and sharptransition D -- are all priorities. Also: Houston had its greatest successes against the Clippers when it limited the scoring from the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin supporting cast. Can they keep Curry and Thompson's sidekicks on the quiet side?

Strauss:If the Rockets are going to have success, a major part will likely be from Howard causing Bogut trouble in the pick-and-roll. The Warriors contained Howard easily in the season series, but Houston's center looks healthier right now. It's possible that Dwight continues this inspired playoff run by sneaking behind Golden State's pick-and-roll defense for some lob dunks.

Watkins:Harden has played three great games in the postseason. I think in this series, he cranks it up. He won't say it publicly, but he wants to make a statement in this series against Curry. I don't think he's mad at Curry, but when your opponent gets the MVP award when you feel it should have been yours, it might be time for some cooking. Harden struggled with double-teams against the Los Angeles Clippers in the previous series and it's uncertain if the Warriors will employ similar tactics. If Harden gets single coverage, whoever guards him will be in trouble.

3. What is the most intriguing matchup in the series?

Adande:Thompson vs. Harden. Thompson has the challenge of guarding Harden without racking up fouls. Will the Warriors feature Thompson to put pressure on Harden at the other end of the court? Will Thompson feel liberated after going against Tony Allen and the Grizzlies last series?

Pelton:Harden vs. Thompson. While Harden may not actually defend Thompson much of the time, and Golden State will surely throw a few defenders at Harden, these are two of the game's better shooting guards who get their points in very different ways.

Stein:I'm sure the masses will focus on Curry vs. Harden, even though you don't expect them to actually match up much, but I think I'm more curious about Howard vs. Bogut. Howard, like last season, probably hasn't gotten enough attention for his positive impact this postseason. But Bogut's rugged D figures to make offense much tougher to come by for Dwight.

Strauss:Curry vs. Ariza is intriguing, because you have a dominant point guard against a skilled, bigger wing defender. If the Warriors have it their way, though, this won't be a one-on-one battle. It's Golden State's preference to quickly move the ball and find mismatches in these situations. My secondary choice is Barnes working off the ball against Harden's defense.

Watkins:Who guards Curry? Jason Terry? Ariza? Harden? Who? During the Clippers series, the Rockets fronted point guard Chris Paul, denying him entry passes, which forced somebody else to bring the ball up court. Terry might not be fast enough to stay with Curry and do you waste valuable energy using Harden on Curry defensively? Ariza? He's got long arms and he's athletic enough to do it, but it means you go with a smaller player on Barnes. It's a hard matchup for the Rockets because either way, Curry will find his shots.

4. Who has the most at stake in this series?

Adande:Curry. He has the chance to do something Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Deron Williams and other prominent point guards of recent years haven't done -- reach the NBA Finals. He can help redefine the position. And he might never get a better opportunity.

Pelton:The Warriors' historical legacy. For Houston, which by all odds shouldn't have survived its big deficits in the series with the Clippers, this is all gravy. The onus is on Golden State to back up a historic regular season with a trip to the Finals.

Stein:The Warriors by far. Golden State is staring at the most golden of opportunities. The Dubs are in the conference finals without having seen either the Spurs or Clippers, arguably sport the healthiest team left in the tournament andfind themselves grappling with three other teams that have zero championship pedigree ... apart from LeBron James' own individual ring-y rsum. The Warriors couldn't ask for a more favorable road to the title. Losing at this stage would be crushing.

Strauss:Harden, who was memorably on the bench during Houston's historic Game 6 comeback against the Clippers. Now he's playing the guy he finished second to in MVP, with a big stage to remind people of just how good he is. Maybe it bodes well that Houston has a good history is this kind of situation (See also: Olajuwon, Hakeem).

Watkins:Some would say the Rockets are playing with house money just based on rallying from a 3-1 deficit against the Clippers. For me, the Warriors have so much to lose here. The Clippers knocked off the defending champs and here come the Rockets, a team coming off a seven-game series that has just one day to prepare. The Warriors swept the Rockets in the regular season and it won't be easy to do that in this series, but with home-court advantage and a dynamic backcourt, it would be a major disappointment to win 67 games, earn the No. 1 seed and lose in the conference finals. There wouldn't be the massive questions as we have for the Clippers, but losing in this round would make for a long summer in the Bay Area.

5. Which team advances to the Finals and in how many games?

Adande: The Warriors in six games. The Rockets have more players who have been to this stage of the playoffs, which will make them a tough test for Golden State. But the Rockets also like to take a lot of 3-point shots and that's what the Warriors do better than anyone.

Pelton:Warriors in five. There are too many advantages in Golden State's favor: the lopsided head-to-head results, the mismatch in terms of regular-season point differential. And while Houston isn't the same team as in the regular season, the Rockets still have been outscored in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Stein:Got to go with Warriors in five. Maybe I'm disrespecting a group of Rockets who are certainly functioning better now than they were back in January when these teams last met, thanks to what they're getting from the likes of Smith and Corey Brewer, but they look vulnerable to me defensively in this matchup without the services of Patrick Beverley or Donatas Motiejunas.

Strauss:The Warriors advance in six games. Deep down, I probably think it's a shorter series, but it's easier to avoid the criticism that comes with saying, "Warriors in four," followed by their dropping a game. I'm a gutless coward and a liar. Anyway, Golden State plays Houston's fast-paced style, only better. That doesn't bode well for the Rockets.

Watkins:Take the Warriors in six games. Oracle Arena is loud and only Memphis has won there in the postseason. The Rockets, despite 26 road wins in the regular season, were beaten pretty badly in Games 3 and 4. But this Rockets team is mentally tough so it wouldn't surprise me if they split the first two. Overall, the Warriors are just playing so well and it's difficult to stop them.

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