One of the enduring questions of this NBA season is whether any team can play David to the Golden State Warriors' Goliath. The Warriors have the top-ranked offense and defense in ESPN's Basketball Power Index and currently hold a 74 percent chance to be crowned champions. Among the "David" candidates are the James Harden-led Houston Rockets, who currently sit third in the Western Conference standings behind the Warriors and San Antonio Spurs.
While the Rockets' chances against Golden State cannot be considered large -- according to BPI simulations, they have an 8 percent chance of beating the Warriors in a seven-game-series, assuming the Warriors have home-court advantage -- with the right adjustments and a little luck, Houston just might be able to buck the odds and disrupt the Warriors' march to the championship.
The Rockets rank third overall in BPI due almost entirely to an explosive offense that is ranked third in offensive efficiency. That offense begins (and often ends) with the MVP candidate Harden, who has made the official transition to point guard this season and is running the offense to near perfection. Harden trails only former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate Russell Westbrook in assist percentage, assisting on 52 percent of his teammates' made field goals, and is essentially tied for the league lead with another former OKC teammate, Kevin Durant, in total win shares.
On the offensive end, the Rockets lead the league by creating 2.5 points per 100 shots through high-value corner 3s and are seventh in the league in accuracy, creating two points per 100 shots through their shooting skill. Trevor Ariza and Sam Dekker are both shooting about 43 percent from the corner, and Ryan Anderson is hitting 55 percent of his corner 3s. Unfortunately for Houston, the Warriors are the third-best team in the league at limiting opponents' accuracy from the corner. The Rockets will need Harden to not only find his teammates in the corner but also for them to continue to hit shots at a high rate against the Warriors.
All of that said, the path to the upset will have to come from the defensive end, where the Rockets are at a disadvantage against the Warriors primarily because their defense is, at best, average.
Despite the focus on highly efficient 3-point attempts on offense, the Rockets don't do a good job of defending the 3-point line -- and the extra valuable corner 3 in particular. The Rockets allow opponents to score an extra point per 100 shots from corner 3 attempts, which ranks 23rd in the league, and allow opponents to score an extra point per 100 shots due to accuracy from the corner 3 -- 18th in the league. Given that Golden State is stocked with great shooters of all shapes and sizes and is also the most accurate team in the league -- scoring nearly 10 extra points per 100 shots thanks to their accuracy -- the Rockets' road to an upset will obviously be treacherous.
Hope for Houston rests with the Warriors' greatest weakness: the ease with which they commit turnovers. Steve Kerr's squad ranks just 22nd in the league in turnovers per 100 possessions. They make up for the high turnover rate with their outstanding shooting, but on an off shooting night, turnovers can be Golden State's downfall.
Meanwhile, creating turnovers is the Rockets' greatest defensive strength. They rank 11th in that category, and both Ariza and Patrick Beverley rank in the top 20 in steal percentage for players with at least 1,000 minutes.
The Rockets have a chance to upset the Warriors if they can focus on creating turnovers and Harden can push the ball in transition and find his highly accurate teammates in the corners when the Warriors' defense keeps him out of the lane.
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