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Series Preview: Warriors turn focus to another title run

After wrapping up a 73-win season, defending champs get rematch with inconsistent Houston Rockets

POSTED: Apr 14, 2016 7:06 AM ET

By Scott Howard-Cooper

BY Scott Howard-Cooper


Warriors vs. Rockets: By the Numbers

Go inside the numbers of the Warriors-Rockets first-round matchup.

Welcome to the playoff rematch that isn't, with both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets in different places than in the 2015 meeting for the Western Conference title and with both teams also playing with something to prove.

Yes, even Golden State, which needs to show over time, not just in the first round, that the lunging at the tape to get the record of 73 regular-season wins will not cost them now when energy will be needed most. And the same is certainly true for Houston, after it looks back at 82 games of potholes and smoldering piles of unrealized potential. Welcome to the proving ground for both.

The Warriors will win if ...

The starting lineup doesn't get kidnapped en masse? The Earth doesn't fall off its axis? It would take some serious digging to come up with a theory based anywhere close to reality on why they wouldn't win.

Golden State is a team that goes through opponents that have good defenses and now it gets to face a team that went into the final night of the regular season 21st in 3-point defense. The Warriors do not mind this matchup at all. They swept the three-game series in the regular season, although Houston did get within 114-110 on New Year's Eve in Texas as James Harden scored 30. Otherwise, Golden State won 112-92 on Oct. 30, the Warriors' second game, and 123-110 on Feb. 9 in the only meeting in Oakland. Harden had 37 that time, a reminder of the damage he can do even against a top defense. Of course, it's also a reminder that he can do all the damaging he wants and the Warriors can still cruise to victory.

The Rockets will win if ...

Harden and Dwight Howard come together like never before. This has felt like a bad mix for years and now Houston needs them to step up at the same time and throw an inside/outside combination that can allow the Rockets long stretches of forcing the action it wants, not playing on their heels as Golden State imposes its will. That's the kind of longshot odds Houston is facing. Just as pressing, the Rockets need to do much better on the defensive boards. Like, light years better.

They were last in the league in rebounding percentage on that end heading into the regular-season finale and now gets an opponent that puts up monster scoring numbers without additional help. Give the Warriors a lot of second-chance opportunities and Houston will need to quickly seek cover. Limit those extra opportunities and it becomes an important step in the upset bid.

Along the same lines, the Rockets have to do much better with the ball after finishing 27th in turnovers and 26th in assist-to-turnover ratio. Same deal as the rebounding. Keep giving away possessions against the Warriors, and making the first pass in the Golden State fast break, and Houston will think being considered longshots is optimistic.

3 quick questions and answers

1. Does the 2015 playoff matchup mean anything?

No. That was a different Warriors team, that deep in the playoffs for the first time and needing to show they could handle the spotlight. And that was a different Rockets team. They had just shown great resiliency to get there with a great comeback against the Clippers in the Western Conference semifinals. There have been no such signs this season.

2. Are the Warriors shorthanded on the frontline?

More like were. The Warriors were shorthanded. But then Andre Iguodala, a candidate for Kia Sixth Man of the Year, returned April 5 after missing 13 games with a sprained left ankle. Festus Ezeli, a backup center, returned April 3 after missing 26 games following surgery on his left knee. Golden State is healthy again.

3. Is there any way the Rockets can hang with the Warriors?

It's possible on offense. Houston broke 110 points in 23 of the last 41 games and have not been held below triple digits twice in a row since November, before Kevin McHale as fired as coach. The obvious counter is that the Rockets haven't run up against many defense as good as Golden State in that time.

Making the pick

It would be hard to pick anyone other than San Antonio to beat the Warriors, let alone an opponent that squeezed into the postseason on the final night of the regular season. The potential of a special night from Harden gives the Rockets the chance to avoid a sweep, but they got the wrong opponent to try to out-offense. Warriors in 5.

Data curated by PointAfter

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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