HOUSTON -- After five days of feverish buildup, the Warriors and Rockets go to basketball war here Monday night. That’s the politically correct description, but this Western Conference Finals comes with the very real possibility for actual bloodshed.
Here is look at the matchups between the teams:
Stephen Curry vs. Chris Paul: These two are old adversaries, dating back to the Warriors-Clippers rivalry. The question coming into this season was whether Paul could coexist with James Harden. Paul answered that with a solid season, including his 13th in a row with a assists-to-turnover ratio of better than 3-to-1. Curry missed 31 games, the most since 2011-12, and still is rounding into shape. Though Paul has a reputation for defense, he has difficulty containing Curry. Both will be subject to considerable cross-matching in this series.
EDGE: Curry, particularly if he gets to his physical peak.
Klay Thompson vs. James Harden: These two have battled since attending high schools in the Los Angeles area. Harden has been MVP runner-up in two of the past three seasons finished in the top five in three of the last four. He is one of the three best offensive players in the NBA and his defense has improved from indifferent to occasional. He is prone to inefficiency and over-dribbling. Though Thompson’s scoring average took a dip (22.3 ppg to 20.0) for the first time in his career, he posted career-highs in field-goal percentage (48.8) and 3-point shooting percentage (44.0). Thompson will be among a series of defenders on Harden, with the goal of keeping him off the foul line and making him a volume shooter.
EDGE: Harden by a hair, because he is the focus of his team’s offense. Thompson’s stellar defense is capable of offsetting Harden’s offensive bag of tricks.
Kevin Durant vs. Trevor Ariza: Ariza is a very good defender but has little chance of containing Durant, the purest frontcourt scorer in the league. Durant has been living mostly off his devastating midrange game. If his 3-ball starts dropping -- he’s shooting 27.9 percent from deep this postseason -- the Rockets may have to raise a white flag. Ariza’s offense comes and goes, as does his 3-point shot. He is often stationed in a corner, just beyond the line, as a bailout option for Harden or Paul. Ariza is shooting 33.9 percent from deep in the postseason.
EDGE: Durant, by a considerable margin. Houston has no legitimate answer for him.
Draymond Green vs. PJ Tucker: These two are equals in only one facet, and that’s toughness. They are fearless and relentless. That said, Green is vastly more versatile at both ends and a legitimate game-changer on defense. He may be the best in the league at foiling opposing offenses. Tucker’s primary role is to tighten team defense on one end, and he’s good at that, while standing around the corner opposite from Ariza as another bailout option for Harden and Paul. Tucker has been hot lately, shooting 45.8 from beyond the arc in the postseason. That said, the Warriors would dare the Rockets to try beating them with Tucker launching triples.
Kevon Looney/Jordan Bell/Green vs. Clint Capela: This is where things get dicey for the Warriors, as Capela’s tremendous postseason has made him Houston’s X-factor. He’s averaging 14.4 points, 12.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks. Warriors coach Steve Kerr won’t divulge his starter, though we can rule out JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia and David West. We know the bulk of the minutes at center will be divided among Looney, Green and Bell. Bell is the closest physical match for Capela, Green the superior mental match and Looney falls somewhere in between. Bell during the postseason is averaging five minutes a game. Don’t be surprised if that figure rises to 15 or more against the Rockets. Bell may even get a start.
EDGE: Capela, unless Kerr starts Green, in which case Durant would move to power forward and Andre Iguodala to small forward.
Through 10 postseason games, Warriors reserves are second in offensive rating and third in defensive rating. Kerr’s use of Iguodala will factor into the overall usage of his bench. While players likely to get more minutes include Nick Young, Quinn Cook and Bell, those likely to play less include West, McGee and Pachulia. Houston’s bench makes no pretense about defending, but there are a number of scorers, beginning with Sixth Man Eric Gordon and Gerald Green. Ryan Anderson’s minutes have taken a steep drop, perhaps because his defense is dreadful. Key players for Warriors: Iguodala, Bell and Young. Key players for the Rockets: Gordon and Green.
EDGE: Warriors, slightly, because of their ability to defend.
Houston coach Mike D’Antoni spent a season as coach in Phoenix under Kerr, who was the general manager, which makes it particularly spicy that the two are matching wits in the postseason for the first time. Kerr and his staff have proved fairly agile in the postseason, fearlessly making lineup changes based on analysis and hunches. They tend to work out more often than not. D’Antoni has been wedded to his system, which is designed to create 3-point shots. Though he has modified it to slow the pace, it’s still about spacing the floor to open avenues for guards to drive and kick. We know the Warriors can adjust between and during games. Can the Rockets be as flexible?
Warriors in six.