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Golden State Warriors vs. Houston Rockets, NBA Playoffs 2015: Series preview, schedule and prediction

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Stephen Curry and James Harden square off in a series between the loaded Warriors and a Rockets team many expected to be sitting at home by now.

One of these teams was supposed to be here. The other seems kind of lucky to still be alive.

Of course, it wasn't necessarily an easy path for the Golden State Warriors. They did drop two of their first three second-round games to the Memphis Grizzlies, after all. But some adjustments from Steve Kerr, plus Stephen Curry rediscovering his shooting touch, was all Golden State needed to come back and win the next three games and reestablish itself as the favorite to win it all.

Meanwhile, just last week the Houston Rockets seemed destined for another early postseason exit. They were down 3-1 to the Los Angeles Clippers and trailing by a large margin in L.A. in the fourth quarter. Then, the Rockets staged an epic fourth-quarter comeback and comfortably won Game 7 at home. Suddenly, Houston is just four wins away from an NBA Finals berth.

The Rockets arrived to the conference finals behind the same formula that they used to win 56 games this season: a lot of James Harden mixed in with random contributions from everyone else. Harden is averaging 27 points, eight assists and 10 free throws per game during the playoffs. Trevor Ariza has added an average of 13 points per game and some excellent defense, as has Corey Brewer. Josh Smith has been huge as well, scoring nearly 13 points per game despite playing just 23 minutes.

The biggest difference for the Rockets has been Dwight Howard, who's playing the best basketball of his Rockets career. Howard has reemerged as a force in the paint on both ends, and he's also grabbing every rebound in sight. During the postseason, Howard is averaging 17 points, 14 rebounds and 2.5 blocks.

But the Rockets are in for a battle against Golden State, one that it seems unlikely they will win. Consider this: Golden State has a per 100 possessions net rating of +8.6 this postseason, per NBA.com. Houston, on the other hand, is being outscored by 0.9 points per 100 possessions.

There's also a reason that the Rockets dropped all four of their matchups to the Warriors during the regular season. Like Golden State, Houston plays fast (the Rockets were No. 2 in the NBA in pace this season, trailing only the Warriors, per NBA.com). The problem is they're not as talented as the Warriors. No one in the NBA is. Getting into a track meet against a team with snipers like Curry and Klay Thompson is never a good idea. Houston, however, doesn't know how to play any other way.

With Patrick Beverley injured, the team also has no one to guard Curry. Jason Terry, the Rockets' starting point guard, certainly can't stick with the league MVP. Maybe Brewer can a bit. Or, maybe Houston uses all five players and the presence of Dwight Howard to slow Curry down. Thing is, Curry is too good a passer to defend like that. He has no problem breaking down a defense and finding shooters left open by defenders crashing down on him. He's also been on fire this postseason, averaging 28 points and shooting 41 percent from behind the three-point line.

This is not to say that the Rockets have no chance -- they're in the conference finals for a reason -- but all signs certainly point to a Warriors series win.

The matchup

  • Warriors (67-15, expected: 65-17) vs. Rockets (56-26, expected: 50-32)
  • Offensive efficiency: Warriors: 109.7 (2nd) | Rockets: 104.2 (12th)
  • Defensive efficiency: Warriors: 98.2 (1st) | Rockets: 100.5 (6th)
  • Season series: Warriors 4-0. The two teams played all four games by Jan. 21. The first two were closer (98-87, 105-93), but the final two were blowouts (131-106, 126-113).

4 questions that will decide the series

We asked our Warriors site, Golden State of Mind, and our Rockets site, The Dream Shake, to give us the lowdown on these two teams.

1. What do you think is your team's biggest advantage in this series?

Golden State of Mind: There's no point in denying it anymore. The Warriors' biggest advantage is, and always has been, Stephen Curry. No other player in the league can stretch a defense in such a way. No one else is hitting 70-foot swishes to close out quarters. He's a threat from every single spot on the floor.

The Dream Shake: Perhaps the Rockets' only true advantage this series is on the glass. They dominated the boards against a Los Angeles Clippers team that sported the league's leading rebounder in the regular season (DeAndre Jordan) and, entering the second round, the playoffs (Blake Griffin). Dwight Howard is in peak form yet again, and there's no one on the Warriors who can effectively box him out. He's grabbing 21.5 percent of available rebounds in these playoffs, dwarfing Andrew Bogut's team-leading 17.9.

2. What do you think is your team's biggest disadvantage in this series?

GSoM: It's hard to say. Both teams are inexperienced at this level. Both teams play fast and loose, taking and hitting a lot of three-pointers. Both have strong interior defensive presences in Bogut and Howard. Where they differ is in free throw attempts per game. James Harden drives to make contact much of the time, and is rewarded with an unending parade of trips to the charity stripe. If the FT disparity gets out of hand, some of these game might get ugly.

TDS: Basically everything else. The Warriors are the best defensive team in the league, the best passing team in the league and the best shooting team in the league. They abused the Rockets in all four games they played against each other, and there is little confidence among Houston fans that the Rockets can completely close that gap. They looked better in the last three games than they did against the Warriors at all, so maybe they've figured something out, but there are a lot of weaknesses to shore up.

3. Which player needs to step his game up most for your team to win?

GSoM: Again, I think a lot of responsibility falls on Klay Thompson. We've seen that as he struggles, the team struggles. When he is locked in and scoring at a high level, the Warriors are almost unstoppable.

TDS: This answer will be James Harden every series until the Rockets are eliminated. Howard has been monstrous, Trevor Ariza has been incredibly effective on both ends of the floor, and Jason Terry, Josh Smith, Corey Brewer and Terrence Jones have all been good for stretches. The Rockets are now one of the last four teams playing while James Harden is scoring below his season average. In Game 7, he woke up and decimated the Clippers with his shooting, attacking and passing. He needs to do that every game for the Rockets to have a shot at pulling off the upset.

4. What is your series prediction and why?

GSoM: It'll be an entirely different set of challenges than the Memphis series, but Steve Kerr and his staff (along with the players) have shown they are more than capable of adjusting mid-series. I think the Rockets manage two wins, but in the end, the Warriors move on to the Finals. Warriors in six.

TDS: Warriors in six. They are just too good for me to predict any team can beat them. The Rockets have had a dream season so far and none of the players are keen on it ending. But the idea of taking a game in Oakland from the Warriors and all three at home seems like just that: a dream. I think the Rockets are better than a lot of others, but juggernauts like the Warriors don't come around very often.

Predictions

Ziller
Flannery
Prada
O'Donnell
Golden State of Mind
The Dream Shake

Warriors logo
IN 6

Warriors logo
IN 5

Warriors logo
IN 5

Warriors logo
IN 6

Warriors logo
IN 6

Warriors logo
IN 6

Schedule

Game 1: Tuesday, May 19. Oracle Arena, Oakland, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Game 2: Thursday, May 21. Oracle Arena, Oakland, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Game 3: Saturday, May 23. Toyota Center, Houston, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Game 4: Monday, May 25. Toyota Center, Houston, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Game 5 (if necessary): Wednesday, May 27. Oracle Arena, Oakland, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Game 6 (if necessary): Friday, May 29. Toyota Center, Houston, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Game 7 (if necessary): Sunday, May 31. Oracle Arena, Oakland, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)