HOUSTON — Nearly lost amid the cliched responses Houston Rockets guard Chris Paul uses to deflect the usual array of mundane questions was one nugget that perfectly encapsulates the Western Conference Finals.
It is a ballyhooed matchup featuring the two most efficient offenses in the NBA, but defense will play an important role in deciding the series.
The Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors present a cavalcade of All-Star performers.
On hand are Splash Brothers and point guards with Hall of Fame credentials sharing a backcourt; an MVP and Sixth Man of the Year; a versatilely skilled forward and a burgeoning big primed for a pay raise.
The Rockets are helmed by an innovative offensive mind, and the Warriors are stewarded by a former player and executive who has enjoyed rousing success on the bench.
For months, NBA fans have anticipated this spectacle of the rim runs and fast breaks, the hail of 3-pointers and sublime passing. But, for all their otherworldly talent, the Rockets and Warriors have no secrets. And, as Paul noted, how the teams defend on Monday in Game 1 at Toyota Center will set the tone for a series many assume will be decided on the offensive end.
Even with Paul and James Harden, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, Rockets-Warriors will be dictated by defensive might. Both teams closed the season ranked in the top 10 in defensive efficiency, and both have ratcheted up their efforts in the playoffs. Golden State is first in defensive rating (99.3), and the Rockets second (102.1). Points won’t be at a premium, but how Draymond Green, P.J. Tucker, and Clint Capela defend will clearly dictate in-game strategy.
“He does a good job on guards,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of Green, who averaged a triple-double of 14.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 10 assists against the New Orleans Pelicans in the West semifinals. “Obviously, they’re an isolation team once everything shakes out so he’ll play a big role this series staying in front of Harden and Paul and also protecting the rim.
“He’ll play quite a bit against Capela. But he can also guard Tucker and [Rockets reserve forward Luc] Mbah a Moute. The whole key defensively these days is can you guard multiple positions and multiple actions, and he can do that. He’s a valuable player for us.”
The Rockets have outscored their opponents by 13.8 points per game on three-pointers in the playoffs while also averaging 52 drives per game, also tops in the NBA this postseason. Their offensive foundation is isolation out of the pick-and-roll, with Harden and Paul exploiting matchups off the dribble or feeding teammates camped behind the arc.
Houston paced the NBA averaging 1.12 points per possession on isolations during the regular season, and 14.1 percent of their possessions in the playoffs have been isolations, the highest among the four remaining teams.
How the Warriors corral Harden and Paul on drives and midrange jumpers will resonate. If they can siphon off lobs to Capela and close out on 3-pointer shooters, success will be theirs.
“Our goal is to not have many breakdowns, communicate and not foul, and play solid defense for 48 minutes,” Curry said. “And we’ve done a pretty good job of that so far throughout the playoffs. They’re a new, different type of challenge with how they go about isolation and shoot as many 3’s as they do, but we’ve seen a lot of film. We’ve experienced it throughout the season the three games we played them and we’ve got to be ready.”
For Houston, the challenge is as daunting. Ever since Kerr turned to his “Hamptons Five” lineup of Curry, Durant, Green, Thompson and Andre Iguodala, the Warriors have outscored their opponents by 41 points per 100 possessions over 54 minutes. That lineup has assisted on 75 percent of its field goals and is playing at a torrid pace of 114 possessions per 48 minutes.
Defending the Warriors presents a multitude of challenges, starting with Durant. He shot 41.9 percent on 3’s during the season and is shooting 60.9 percent from midrange in the playoffs.
“He’s maybe the best scorer in the league,” Tucker said of Durant. “I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer to that [defending Durant]. You do what you can. You try to pick him up early, you try to get physical. You try to do stuff and he’s going to try to counter it. It’s a chess match.
“Those guys can score the ball. They’re going to score the ball. They’re going to score a bunch of points. It’s a product of sticking together and trying to minimize that as much as possible.”
That philosophy applies to both teams on both ends. Golden State produced a robust 61.8 effective field goal percentage against the Rockets during three regular-season meetings, leaving the onus on Houston to defend at a more rigorous clip. The Rockets countered with an effective field goal percentage (56.0) above their season average (55.1) against a team rife with stellar individual defenders, meaning Houston will continue to do what comes so efficiently.
“There will be iso,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Now whether it’s a little bit more or a little bit less, I think that depends on the game. But we’re not going to change up a whole lot of what we do.”