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The Houston Rockets won a league-best 65 games in the regular season and have lost just two games this postseason, but will enter the Western Conference Finals as underdogs against the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors. The Warriors are listed as -185 favorites to win the series, according to the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas. However, the Rockets are currently favored to win Game 1 of the West Finals on Monday night in Houston.
Oddsmakers shouldn’t be ostracized for leaning towards the Warriors over the top-seeded Rockets. Golden State, after all, has posted a 24-3 record over the past two postseasons and has yet to even partake in a series longer than five games since Kevin Durant ditched Oklahoma City for the heavyweight Warriors.
Although it’s tough to foresee the Rockets dethroning the Warriors, here are three factors that could make it possible:
Advancing to the conference finals for the first time in his career, Chris Paul needs to perform at the same superstar level as he did against the Utah Jazz last round. Paul scored 41 points in the Rockets’ series-clinching victory over the Jazz, shooting 13-of-22 shooting from the field—including 8-of-10 from three-point land—and added 10 assists (zero turnovers) with seven rebounds and a steal.
Paul is certainly capable of outshining two-time MVP Stephen Curry on the big stage. For all the negativity associated with CP3 and his lack of team playoff success, he ranks fifth all-time in postseason assists per contest. Paul, a seven-time member of the NBA All-Defensive First Team, must be physical against Curry, particularly when guarding him away from the ball. The more off-the-ball pressure Paul can provide, the less pick-and-roll opportunities will be available for Curry, who is all but unstoppable in the two-man game on offense.
Clint Capela, a restricted free agent this summer, was a borderline All-Star during the regular season and has shined thus far in the postseason. Houston’s center outplayed his counterparts Karl Anthony-Towns and Rudy Gobert in successive series. The 7-footer will be challenged, though, by Golden State’s “death lineup,” which features Draymond Green at center.
The Warriors will likely open with their small-ball lineup as they did at the end of their last series against the New Orleans Pelicans. In the past, centers have been pushed off the floor by the quickness of this lineup because it steers the opposing big men away from the hoop. Capela is shifty for a player his size and possesses the ability to keep up with the Warriors’ fast-paced offense. Furthermore, Capela can overpower any player on Golden State’s roster and can be particularly effective in the post versus the death lineup. If things going according to plan, Capela will defend the Warriors’ smaller players well and dominate the paint on offense as he done all playoffs long.
The Rockets will rely on Trevor Ariza on defense against Durant to start the game. But offseason additions Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker will be tasked with guarding the superstar forward for portions of the contest as well. Mbah a Moute provides more length against Durant, while Tucker is a more physical defender. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey constructed his roster to match up with the Warriors—even admitting he was obsessed with beating the champs—and brought both players to Houston with an eye on slowing down Durant by bodying him and forcing him to take difficult jump shots.
Mbah a Moute and Tucker are both defensive specialists who don’t provide much offense. As Golden State hones their defense on James Harden, Paul and Capela, forwards Mbah a Moute and Tucker will be often left alone on the perimeter to shoot threes. Tucker has been effective from behind the arc this postseason, making 22-of-48 (45.8 percent) of his 3s. Mbah a Moute missed the first round and made just two of his 10 3s versus the Jazz, but the 31-year-old did hit a career-high 63 three-pointers in the regular season, despite missing 21 games to injury. When Harden and Paul penetrate to the basket, Mbah a Moute and Tucker will be the open men who need to make shots to keep the Warriors’ defense honest and limit their double-teams.