Ryan Knaus

Playoff Preview

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NBA Western Finals Preview

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Warriors vs. Rockets. It’s the Western Conference matchup basketball fans have been anticipating all season, pitting the reigning champs against the rebuilt Rockets who knocked them out of the No. 1 seed to claim homecourt advantage. Harden. Steph. CP3. Durant. Klay. Capela. Draymond. There’s no shortage of personality-driven hype surrounding this series, but today’s column takes a deep dive into the numbers. We’ll be looking at specific matchups, 5-man lineups, play types, regular-season results, and much more. And if you missed my preview of the Cavs vs. Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals, you can read that here.


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Rather than looking exclusively at each team's splits in a handful of matchups vs. one another this season, I'm focusing on the overall composition of their offense and defense throughout the 82-game regular season. Which plays did they rely on consistently? Where did they thrive, and where did they struggle? (Spoiler...with these two offenses, there isn't much 'struggling' to be found.) As a basis for discussion I'm using Synergy's 'play type' data, readily available on


In particular, I'm interested in how often each team ran certain play types (frequency) and how effectively they scored on those plays (points per possessions) or defended those plays. As an example of a play type, this is how defines an 'Isolation': "When the possession-ending event is created during a 'one-on-one' matchup. The defender needs to be set and have all defensive options at the initiation of the play." If you want the full list of play type descriptions, you can find them here.




  Rockets Offense Warriors Offense
  Points Per Possession Frequency Points Per Possession Frequency
Spot Up 14th (1.02) 17th (19.9%) 7th (1.04) 30th (14.7%)
Transition 1st (1.20) 13th (15.0%) 3rd (1.15) 3rd (18.6%)
PnR Ball-Handler 3rd (0.93) 13th (17.6%) 1st (0.96) 29th (10.9%)
Isolation 1st (1.12) 1st (14.5%) 4th (0.95) 17th (6.4%)
Cut 24th (1.21) 30th (5.4%) 3rd (1.34) 1st (12.3%)
Off Screen 12th (1.02) 22nd (4.5%) 1st (1.13) 1st (11.9%)
Miscellaneous 9th (0.56) 20th (5.5%) 21st (0.47) 2nd (7.4%)
PnR Roll Man 8th (1.12) 2nd (8.3%) 10th (1.10) 28th (4.4%)
Post Up 6th (0.94) 28th (2.4%) 18th (0.87) 17th (6.1%)
Putbacks 27th (1.04) 29th (3.9%) 28th (1.02) 28th (3.9%)
Handoff 12th (0.94) 29th (3.1%) 19th (0.88) 27th (3.2%)




  Rockets Defense Warriors Defense
  PPP Allowed PPP Allowed
Spot Up 18th (1.02) 11th (1.00)
Transition 15th (1.10) 14th (1.10)
PnR Ball-Handler 12th (0.83) 7th (0.80)
Isolation 6th (0.84) 12th (0.87)
Cut 19th (1.29) 12th (1.24)
Off Screen 3rd (0.91) 5th (0.93)
Miscellaneous 22nd (0.56) 10th (0.47)
PnR Roll Man 28th (1.15) 21st (1.11)
Post Up 14th (0.88) 5th (0.83)
Putbacks 28th (1.19) 8th (1.07)
Handoff 2nd (0.81) 7th (0.85)


Points per possession (PPP) is a self-explanatory term whose simplicity disguises its importance. Not only are certain teams better than others at running off-screen plays, for instance, but certain play types are simply more efficient across the league. This may not be true on an individual possession, but in the aggregate it's more efficient to run plays that end with the roll man off a pick-and-roll, say, than a post-up.


The Warriors offer a notable example. During the regular season, they averaged a whopping 1.34 points per possession on plays that ended with cuts, the third-highest mark in the league. That startling efficiency is even more impressive since they ran cuts more than any other team in the league -- it accounted for 12.3% of their plays, which is way higher than the next-closest team (the 76ers at 9.1%). In other words, they identified a high-percentage play which they are particularly adept at running, and they found ways to run it far more frequently than any other team in the league.


It stands to reason, then, that Houston will be extra aware of Golden State's cutting action and will look to force the Warriors into less-efficient play types -- of course, that's easier said than done. The same goes for Golden State's off-screen plays, in which they led the NBA in both PPP (1.13) and frequency (11.9% of their total plays). Running guys like Klay Thompson and Steph Curry off screens is a bread-and-butter play, and the Rockets will have spent the past five days game-planning ways to stop such action. After all, Klay led the NBA with 10.8 points per game in catch-and-shoot situations this season, while Steph ranked sixth at 7.8 points per game.


When the Rockets create catch-and-shoot chances, on the other hand, it tends to involve far fewer screens and curls -- instead, it's guys like P.J. Tucker, Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute or Eric Gordon parked at the 3-point line. In doing so, Houston stretches defenses and creates more room for the isolation and pick-and-roll sets they run so well. So far in the playoffs, opponents have been hedging toward the paint and away from those spot-up shooters, to a startling degree. According to Synergy's tracking data, P.J. Tucker has been 'wide open' (no defender within six feet of him upon release) on 63.5% of his shot attempts. That's easily the highest percentage of 'wide open' shots in the postseason. Ariza has also been 'wide open' on 49.3% of his shots (6th-highest), while Eric Gordon has been 'wide open' on 38.2% (16th-highest).


On the Warriors' side of things, defenses have typically been content to let Draymond Green try to beat them -- he's been wide open on 49.5% of his shots. Compare those numbers to a mere 15.9% for Stephen Curry and 16.5% for Klay Thompson. (As a side note, no player has had fewer 'wide open' chances than LeBron James, at a mere 10.3%.)


The Rockets are also attempting a playoff-high 52.0 drives per game, compared to the Warriors' playoff-low 20.5 drives. That's an astounding difference that carries into the scoring column -- Houston is averaging 27.3 points per game off drives, while Golden State is at just 9.4 points. The second-lowest team in postseason scoring off drives was Oklahoma City, yet even they averaged 16.8 points, nearly doubling the Warriors' paltry total. Golden State was lowest (by far) during the regular season, too, so this isn't a new trend based on postseason opponents. The Warriors simply don't isolate and drive -- they rely on ball-movement, perhaps more than any other team.


To reiterate, the Rockets' offense was easily the most reliant in the league on isolation plays. Their offense ended with isos on 14.5% of their possessions, and they averaged a league-best 1.12 points on those plays. If the Warriors switch on the high pick-and-roll that initiates much of Houston's offense, James Harden or Chris Paul can hit the roll-man (8.3% of their offensive plays, second-most in the league) or attack in isolation if they like the matchup. In the latter case, they can create their own shot, kick out to an open shooter (more often 'wide open', as mentioned above), or draw a foul. CP3 is elite in this regard yet Harden is usually the engine of the attack, having led the NBA with a whopping 35.2% of his plays coming in isolation. He drew shooting fouls on 17.0% of those possessions and even had and-one opportunities on 5.0%, the same rate as LeBron James.


Steph Curry expects to be attacked in isolation throughout the series, adding that he would "probably do the same exact thing" if he were coaching against himself. "You got Klay, Andre, Draymond and KD out there," he said, referring to the defensive prowess of the other 'Hamptons Five' members. "I embrace those opportunities to get stops, try to make it tough in this iso situations, just do my job.” Golden State's ability to defend those isos without fouling will be critical, of course, since James Harden led the league (by a wide margin) with 10.1 FT attempts per game -- Steph and KD combined averaged 11.8 attempts.


I referred earlier to the Warriors’ penchant for ball- and player-movement over isos, and sure enough they ranked 4th in total passes per game during the regular season. They come into this series leading all playoff teams at 323.2 passes per game. They rank No. 1 in assists, secondary assists and 'potential assists' -- opportunities for teammates to make a shot off a pass, whether or not they made it. At the other end of the spectrum, Houston ranked last in the league with an average of 253.8 passes per game. They did make the most of their passes, however, ranking fifth in pass-to-assist ratio (8.5 to 1.0).


The Warriors’ whip-smart passing is never more obvious than when they’re using the so-called 'Death Lineup', which puts Draymond Green at center surrounded by Steph, Klay, Durant and Iguodala. That lineup has shared the court for 54 minutes in the four games since Steph's return, resulting in a ridiculous net rating of +40.9. Prior to Steph's return that same lineup, but with Nick Young inserted, had a net rating of -11.0. Interestingly, the Warriors' two most-used lineups without Steph (by playing time) all feature the guys mentioned above plus either JaVale McGee or Kevon Looney. The Warriors may also give Jordan Bell some minutes at center (more on that below), and coach Steve Kerr has a variety of weapons at his disposal to deal with Houston's attack, and Clint Capela in particular.


To wit, during the regular season it was actually Zaza Pachulia (16.7 possessions per game) and David West (11.7 possessions) who drew the primary defensive assignments vs. Capela. He basically lit up Pachulia, but West held him to 41.7% shooting over the course of three games -- that's a small sample size, but it's still noteworthy since Capela ranked third in the NBA at 63.4% shooting. If Draymond Green and Kevin Durant can eliminate Capela's easy lob dunks and offensive boards, Golden State will be emboldened to play the Hamptons Five/Death Lineup at their leisure. If Capela is feasting inside, however, they'll still have a variety of options closer to a 'true center'. And no matter which lineups we see in Game 1, there are going to be plenty of in-series tweaks from both teams.


All the statistical and stylistic differences mentioned above are part of the reason I love the NBA. Two very different approaches to the game, tailored to each team's personnel, yet they finished No. 1 and No. 2 in offensive rating this season -- Golden State at 112.3 points per 100 possessions, and Houston at 112.2 points. In addition to such elite offensive numbers, both teams were also in the top-10 for defensive rating. This is going to be one wild series.



Assorted News and Notes


James Harden played two games vs. the Warriors this season and saw an almost exclusive diet of Klay Thompson defensively -- Klay averaged 38.5 defensive possessions per game vs. Harden, with the next-closest player being Draymond Green at 8.0 possessions. As great a defender as Klay is, nobody can single-handedly stop Harden, who shot 50.0% while being defended by Thompson, including a 4-of-7 mark from downtown.


Nick Young averaged 16.7 points in three games vs. Houston this season, while shooting a ridiculous 69.2% from the field. That's despite most of his attempts coming from downtown, where he went a combined 13-of-19 (68.4%). As usual, he contributed almost nothing else statistically (1.3 boards, 0.3 assists, 0.3 steals) and there's no way he'll sustain that level of offensive efficiency, so I'm not eager to use him as a punt-DFS option.


Draymond Green just missed a triple-double average vs. Houston during the regular season, notching 15.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, 9.7 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.7 blocks. He also turned it over 3.7 times per game, but that still added up to 45.3 fantasy points per game -- the highest mark of any Warriors player.


During the regular season, James Harden attempted nearly half of his shot attempts (48.5%) after taking seven or more dribbles. That led the NBA, yet it wasn't much higher than Chris Paul, who ranked second with 47.7% of his shots off 7+ dribbles. Both guys have actually gone higher in the postseason, with more than half of their FG attempts coming after 7+ dribbles, which is somewhat hard to believe. On the Warriors' side, their leader in this category was Steph Curry -- at a modest 19.6%. Again, the Rockets really do love their isolation plays.


Steph Curry said recently that he's unsure when he'll be 100% recovered from the Grade 2 MCL sprain that forced him to sit out nearly six weeks. “In my mind, when I’m out there, I feel like I’m playing as if and I have the mindset as if I’m all the way back," he said. "But your body obviously sometimes has a mind of its own." He added that he's only occasionally altered his game to compensate for the injury, saying, "Maybe on a possession or two, not go in the paint or something like that. Make sure I’m not among the trees too much." That’s one more reason for Houston to target him defensively.


Steve Kerr said that Jordan Bell "could definitely play a role" in the Western Conference Finals. “It looks to me like Jordan is engaged,” Kerr said recently. Steph Curry added that the "fast-paced, small-ball type series ... would really favor [Bell]," and it wouldn't be surprising if he earns some minutes at center this round.


As noted in my Eastern Conference preview, ESPN’s experts have predicted the Cavs and Warriors to meet again in the Finals, and it’s not even close. In the West, 19 of the 22 experts polled have Golden State advancing. Two people think Golden State can take the series in five games, and the three people who believe in Houston still think they’ll need seven games to advance.


After the Rockets’ 116-108 win vs. the Warriors in January, Clint Capela infamously said, “We are better than them.” James Harden said the victory was good “for [the Rockets] swag.” Eric Gordon was more circumspect, saying, "Offensively, we're just as good as them, no question. Defensively, they're a championship team.” And of course, GM Daryl Morey hasn’t been shy about acknowledging that his team is built with the Warriors in mind – he said that he’s “obsessed” with beating Golden State, and after the January victory he cheekily Tweeted a video with lyrics from The Police stalker-anthem ‘Every Breath You Take’. I’m sure we won’t hear about this at all during the series, which I truly hope goes seven games.

Despite residing in Portland, Maine, Ryan Knaus remains a heartbroken Sonics fan who longs for the days of Shawn Kemp and Xavier McDaniel. He has written for since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter.
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