HOUSTON — The NBA Finals are the crown jewel of the playoffs for obvious reasons, but it’d be hard to argue with anyone who views this vaunted Western Conference finals matchup between the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, which opens Monday night, as this year’s main event.
The Warriors have two of the best three players in the world in their starting five, have won two of the past three titles and appeared borderline annoyed by having to face questions about whether they’re concerned to be starting a series without home-court advantage for the first time in their recent championship era. The Rockets won an NBA-best 65 regular-season games, have likely MVP James Harden and future Hall of Famer Chris Paul in their backcourt and possess a group of sweet-shooting teammates who stretch the floor as if it’s made of Play-Doh.
The offensive firepower — Golden State and Houston finished No. 1 and No. 2 in offensive efficiency and virtually averaged the same number of points per 100 possessions — guarantees we’ll hear plenty about how well these teams score. But because of that, something else about the Rockets and Warriors may fly beneath the radar: The NBA’s two best clubs are even further ahead of the curve on defense. In a league that’s more reliant than ever on the pick-and-roll offense, these defenses are unmatched when it comes to their versatility and ability to switch assignments on the fly.
Houston defended a screen-and-roll by switching on 1,406 possession chances during the regular season, while Golden State orchestrated 1,075 switches of its own, according to data from Second Spectrum and NBA Advanced Stats. These teams — which more than doubled the switch totals compiled by 20 other squads — were outliers: The Lakers were the only other club that broke 800 switches during the 2017-18 season.
And it isn’t just that the Warriors and Rockets switch a lot. They also use the strategy to fuel their high-octane offenses. Houston forced 3.5 turnovers per 100 switches, while Golden State forced 2.4, the best rates in the league, according to Second Spectrum.
That ability — having two similarly sized players trade their defensive responsibilities quickly enough during a pick-and-roll that the offense doesn’t gain an edge — speaks to the length and versatility these Western Conference foes have. And it takes on added importance in a matchup like this, in which the Warriors and Rockets use an array of screens (albeit differently1) to free up their most lethal shooters beyond the 3-point line.
“You have to cover more ground than ever before. It’s amazing: Sometimes I’ll turn on the classic sports channel and find Lakers-Celtics games from the 1980s — some of the best games ever — and the game is played in this tiny little radius. Now it’s way out on the perimeter,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Every possession was, you dump it into the post, a double comes, and you might see six or eight threes taken in a game. But everything was different. The rules were different. The talent is different. Very few low-post players anymore. The league’s adapted. Coaches have adapted. Things are ever-changing. And you have to change along with that.”
Anyone who’s followed the Warriors’ dominance these past few years knows a huge chunk of that success stems from Golden State’s ability to go small and play Draymond Green — who may not even be the ideal height for a traditional small forward — at center. That alignment, with the addition of Andre Iguodala, gives the Warriors four long-limbed clones who are laterally quick enough and strong enough to cover almost anyone. With that defensive speed, Golden State can gamble a bit more on that end; it knows the opposing offense generally won’t be able to find mismatches, even if a switch has taken place.
“At the end of the day, it’s really just another way for us to cut off the other team’s options with our versatility,” said Green, the league’s reigning defensive player of the year, who sometimes calls an audible — and moves a teammate out of the way — before a screen occurs to be in position to thwart the play.
Houston has also made life difficult for opponents with its versatility on defense. By and large, the Rockets have been far more successful on defense than most would have guessed, jumping to sixth in defensive efficiency this season after ranking 21st in 2015-16 and 18th in 2016-17. Adding the sticky-handed Paul certainly factored into that improvement, but plugging free-agent signings Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker into the lineup likely did even more for the defense.
“Their ability to guard 1 through 5 makes it so much easier for us. That’s why we’re so much better on defense this year,” Houston guard Eric Gordon said of the duo, which sometimes shares the frontcourt despite neither standing taller than 6-foot-8. (Nonetheless, the lineup pays dividends: Houston, trailing by 14 heading into the fourth quarter at Portland in December, came back to win by 7 while using Mbah a Moute and Tucker at the 4 and 5 for the entire period.)
Mbah a Moute, in particular, has become a vital piece. According to a defensive dashboard created by Nylon Calculus contributor Krishna Narsu, the wing’s versatility was highly unusual. This season, he was one of just seven players to spend at least 15 percent of his time guarding each of the following positions: point guard, shooting guard, small forward and power forward.
Unsurprisingly, the Rockets struggled in his absence during the middle of the campaign, enduring a season-long five-game losing streak. The Rockets’ 101.2 defensive rating with Mbah a Moute on the court this season would have ranked best in the league on a team scale, while their 105.4 rating without him would have had them just slightly above average, at No. 12.
Above all else, Mbah a Moute and Tucker carry so much importance because they make Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni — one of the game’s brightest offensive minds who was never really known for switching with his defenses — more comfortable utilizing this style of play.
“To even have a chance against a team like Golden State, you have to make a point of not being put into rotations. They’ll kill you that way. So I’m just happy we have a roster full of guys to where it makes sense to be able to switch the way we do,” he said.
To be sure: Neither team is breaking from decades of tradition with this strategy on defense, even if they are using it far more often than everyone else. On some level, this is no different from what the LeBron James-era Miami Heat did when it rode small ball to a championship in 2012. (Kerr would be the first to tell you that he never envisioned Green playing the rim-protector role when he took the Warriors job. “We didn’t know Draymond was Draymond yet,” he told me.) Beyond that, it wouldn’t be fair to gloss over how unbelievably dominant these teams are on offense, given how big a role scoring plays in their success.
Yet there are reasons to think that creative, well-timed switches will heavily factor into this series as the chess match of hunting for what each team perceives to be mismatches unfolds.
The Warriors have made no secret of the fact that they like to post up Kevin Durant when they spot him being guarded by Paul following a screen.
Meanwhile, Harden and the Rockets are even less shy about attacking Stephen Curry; they’ll often run multiple pick-and-rolls until they get him on an island for a 1-on-1 matchup. In fact, they used this tactic six times in a seven-possession span during the final four minutes of the teams’ last regular-season meeting Jan. 20, a 116-108 Houston win.
“We’re just gonna watch film and find ways to attack them offensively,” Harden said when I asked about that sequence. “We’ll take our shots, play unselfishly. Pretty simple.”
Curry thinks this will mean isolating him in the same way this series. “I hope it’s every single play,” he told The Athletic’s Anthony Slater. “If you look at the ‘Hamptons Five’ lineup that’s out there, I would probably do the same exact thing if I was coaching against me. You’ve got Klay (Thompson), Andre, Draymond and KD out there. I embrace those opportunities to get stops and try to make it tough in those iso situations … and just do my job.”
The likely MVP seeking out a former MVP for a 1-on-1 matchup, for the right to play in the NBA Finals. A pretty cool outcome, all thanks to how these juggernauts force and handle switches on defense.