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The Rockets Have Become the Warriors’ Perfect Foil

Houston has put its own twist on Golden State’s title-tested formula, and in doing so has positioned itself as the biggest obstacle to the Warriors’ back-to-back bid

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

The Rockets had closed the gap with the Warriors before Steph Curry suffered an MCL sprain in his left knee. Houston has the best record (63-15) in the NBA this season, is practically tied with Golden State in net rating, and is 40-2 when James Harden, Chris Paul, and Clint Capela all play. The Rockets have basically become a streamlined version of the Warriors: They have copied a few essential parts of the Dubs’ formula while discarding the rest. Now, the NBA championship may come down to whether the Rockets know the Warriors better than the Warriors know themselves.

After the Rockets suffered humiliating playoff defeats to the Warriors in 2015 and 2016, Golden State became Daryl Morey’s white whale. “It’s the only thing we think about,” Houston’s GM told ESPN Radio’s Ryen Russillo in an interview in December. “I think I’m not supposed to say that, but we’re basically obsessed with ‘How do we beat the Warriors?’ ... We calculated it—it’s like 90 percent if we’re going to win a title, we’ve gotta beat the Warriors at some point. A lot of our signings and what we do during the year is based on that. ... We spend most of our time just figuring out how we might knock the Warriors out in seven games. Because we’re pretty sure that’s what’s going to define our season.”

The first-round loss in 2016 put an end to the Harden and Dwight Howard era in Houston. This version of the Rockets is completely different; Harden, Capela, and Trevor Ariza are the only players left. Their new teammates all have two things in common: They shoot 3-pointers and they’re versatile defenders. Everyone who doesn’t fit that blueprint has either been shoved out the door or marginalized. Slower big men like Howard and Donatas Motiejunas are gone, as are inconsistent shooters like Josh Smith, Corey Brewer, and Terrence Jones, and poor defenders like Jason Terry.

The plight of Ryan Anderson is the perfect example of how Houston’s personnel has changed. The Rockets signed Anderson to a four-year, $80 million contract in the 2016 offseason to provide floor spacing. However, his lack of foot speed was exposed by the Spurs in their second-round loss last postseason, and there’s little chance he could hang with the Warriors when they go small. Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni moved Anderson into a reserve role in February, even though Anderson is still a valuable starter against most of the league. By doing so, he was making a Steve Kerr–esque in-series adjustment five months in advance of a potential playoff showdown with the Warriors.

Benching Anderson for P.J. Tucker is Houston’s version of replacing David Lee with Draymond Green. Tucker, whom the Rockets signed to a four-year, $32 million contract last offseason, is literally a bargain version of Green. At 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, the 32-year-old is a cartoonishly proportioned ball of muscle who has played with a massive chip on his shoulder ever since returning to the NBA in 2012 from a four-year stint overseas. He’s a hard-nosed and multi-positional defender who hangs out in the corners on offense, shooting 37.3 percent from 3 on 3.7 attempts a game.

The Paul trade received most of the attention last summer, but adding Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute was just as important when it comes to matching up with Golden State. At 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Mbah a Moute is a versatile defender who can switch screens and guard all four of the Warriors’ stars while doing just enough (35.5 percent from 3 on 2.9 attempts a game this season) to stay out of the way on offense. Playing Tucker and Mbah a Moute up front gives Houston its own version of the Lineup of Death, with five perimeter players on the floor at the same time.

The Rockets made a statement on opening night with a 122-121 win over the Warriors, even though Paul was limited by a knee injury that kept him out for the next month. They closed that game with a small-ball lineup of Harden, Eric Gordon, Ariza, Tucker, and Mbah a Moute. Crunch time looked like a glimpse of the NBA in 2025: There wasn’t a single traditional big man on the floor, and Shaun Livingston, who was only playing because Green had also injured himself earlier in the game and Andre Iguodala was out, was the only one who couldn’t shoot 3s. Harden summed up his team’s attitude in a postgame interview with TNT’s David Aldridge: “We got some dogs on this team. We are the most versatile team since I’ve been in Houston. We got a chance.”

Houston threatens Golden State in a way no team could in last year’s playoffs. None of the Warriors’ opponents could match up with them when they downsized and played Green and Kevin Durant up front. Portland didn’t have enough talent, while Utah and San Antonio were built around traditional centers. Cleveland was the only one to take a game from Golden State because it had the shooters to spread the floor for LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, but not enough of those shooters could play defense. It wasn’t just that the Warriors had four future Hall of Famers in their prime. They were playing a different game than anyone else. The difference this season is that the Rockets can play it, too.

That’s where the similarities end, though. Houston copied Golden State’s roster construction, but it uses those pieces very differently. Kerr runs a motion-based offense that features an endless number of cuts and back screens. He rarely uses the pick-and-roll between Curry and Durant, which might be the hardest play in basketball to defend—it’s almost as if he’s worried that relying on such easy points might create bad habits. D’Antoni, on the other hand, is obsessed with creating points as easily as possible. The Rockets are essentially what would happen if an NBA team tried to build an entire plane out of a black box. There’s little of what they would consider wasted movement in their offense: They run pick-and-rolls the entire game, and then everyone else stands as far apart as possible and waits to take spot-up 3s.

The contrast between the two teams is striking when you look at the numbers:

Rockets vs. Warriors: Shot Distribution

Team Percentage of Shots From P/R Ball Handler Percentage of Shots From P/R Roll Percentage of Shots From Cuts Passes Per Game FGAs From Midrange
Team Percentage of Shots From P/R Ball Handler Percentage of Shots From P/R Roll Percentage of Shots From Cuts Passes Per Game FGAs From Midrange
Rockets 18.3% (12th) 8.4% (2nd) 5.3% (30th) 254 (29th) 6.4 (30th)
Warriors 10.3% (30th) 4.3% (28th) 12.5% (1st) 322.6 (5th) 19.8 (7th)

The Rockets don’t do variety. They play a brutally efficient brand of basketball: They spread the floor for Harden and Paul to attack slower defenders in space, and they take as many shots at the 3-point line or the rim as possible. Everyone knows their role and sticks to it. There’s none of the complexity or ball movement of Golden State’s offense. Kerr doesn’t run the Triangle, but he’s a disciple of Phil Jackson in the sense that he believes that basketball is a reflection of life; his philosophy on the court reflects what he believes about the world, as he told ESPN’s Baxter Holmes last October:

“Iso basketball, where one guy is going one-on-one and everybody is standing around, I don’t like that,” Kerr says. “I don’t like that at all.”

Transitioning from heavy isolation to heavy passing and movement would be dramatic, but “there’s a makeup in every player who’s ever played,” Kerr says, “that if you get to touch the ball and you get to be a part of the action—whether it’s as an assist man, ball mover, shooter, dribbler—the more people who are involved in the offense, the more powerful it becomes.”

If given a truth serum, Kerr would likely point to two playoff series as a vindication of his philosophy: Golden State over Oklahoma City in 2016 and San Antonio over Houston in 2017. In both series, the less-athletic team that did a better job of moving the ball defeated the more-athletic team built around ball-dominant stars. The Rockets offense became stagnant and predictable as the Spurs sold out to take away shots at the rim and 3s, daring them to take midrange jumpers. D’Antoni didn’t have a Plan B when Gregg Popovich took away his Plan A, and Harden wore down over the course of the series before collapsing in Game 6.

D’Antoni is betting that changing his personnel, not his philosophy, will make the difference. Houston now has a second playmaker in Paul, and it is much better defensively. Anderson was the biggest source of its breakdowns on that side of the ball, and he may not even play in a potential series against Golden State. He has been deadly in his new role as a backup 5, but Houston will likely go smaller at that position and play Mbah a Moute there. The result will be a lot of Lineup of Death basketball, except the Rockets will be doing it to run pick-and-rolls and isolations almost exclusively.

D’Antoni may be able to flip the script on Kerr by forcing the Warriors’ traditional big men (Zaza Pachulia, David West, and JaVale McGee) off the floor. Zaza and West can barely get off the ground, but they quarterback the defense and seal off the lane, and their screening and passing are hidden keys to making the team’s offense work. The problem is that Houston can drag them out on the perimeter and expose their lack of speed in a way few other teams can. If the Warriors try to help off any of the Rockets’ shooters, Houston’s superstars will punish them. Instead of going small as a way to create mismatches, Golden State may have to go small as a defensive measure to stay in the series.

The issue is that the Warriors don’t have much perimeter depth. Their roster is overloaded with big men, while their two main acquisitions last offseason (Nick Young and Omri Casspi) have fizzled. Patrick McCaw had regressed even before his frightening fall in Sacramento last week. Golden State will have to count on Livingston and Iguodala to have some gas left in the tank, even though Houston will be liberally helping off them and daring them to shoot 3s. Quinn Cook, a two-way player who has been pressed into the starting lineup because of Curry’s injury, may need to play important minutes even if Curry is back at full strength by the Western Conference finals.

Curry’s health hangs over everything. After spraining his MCL on March 23, he’s expected to miss at least six weeks, including the first round of the playoffs, and there’s no way to know whether he will be the same player when he returns. He wasn’t after returning from a similar injury in the 2016 playoffs. Curry is the key to making Kerr’s system work: The threat of him moving off the ball creates openings for everyone else. If Golden State needs to run a more Durant-centric offense to get through the postseason, Kerr might need to borrow a few pages from D’Antoni’s playbook by simplifying his play calls and letting Durant run isolations and pick-and-rolls with shooters around him.

A playoff series between Golden State and Houston might not happen, as both teams (even as the West’s top two seeds) will have to defeat formidable opponents in the first and second rounds. They have been the two best teams in the NBA this season, and it would be a shame if their contrasting philosophies couldn’t be tested in the ultimate crucible. The Warriors are still the team to beat, but a season that started out looking like a coronation is now anything but. Every superhero needs a nemesis, and the Rockets are the perfect foil for them. They were built as a response to Golden State’s dominance, and their existence forces the Warriors to grapple with who they are and what they believe.

All stats are current through Tuesday’s games.