By Norm Elrod
(CBS San Francisco/CBS Local) — Before the NBA Playoffs even started, a Golden State Warriors-Houston Rockets rematch of the 2018 Western Conference Finals seemed imminent. No player would admit looking past their first-round opponent (though a fan might). But the possible second-round matchup lurked there on the horizon.READ MORE: UPDATE: Investigation Underway Into Fatal Freeway Shooting On I-580 In Oakland
So here we are, one game into the series everyone was expecting. The top-seeded Warriors welcomed the fifth-seeded Rockets to town with a loss to open the second round. It wasn’t pretty, but this series is far from over. Houston, leading last year’s series 3-2, came within a Chris Paul hamstring of knocking off Golden State. That’s the closest of any team since LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016. Last year’s playoffs might have played out differently were it not for Paul’s untimely injury at the end of game five.
Both teams carry largely the same squads this year, and they’re mostly healthy, except for DeMarcus Couins, who wasn’t a Warrior this time last season anyway. He was always more of luxury, bonus star power on a multi-championship team that already included Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Houston has its stars as well. Chris Paul is playing at full strength. James Harden is still James Harden. Clint Capela remains a force around the rim, even if he disappeared in the first game of the series.
With so much elite talent on one court, some expected a beautiful display of basketball. But these two teams know each other really well. Familiarity could just turn this series into a knock-down, drag-out fight. Game one certainly points in that direction. And a slow, slogging series favors the Rockets.READ MORE: COVID: Bay Area Health Officials, Schools Prepare To Vaccinate Kids 5-11 As Authorization Looms
Golden State and Houston play two different brands of basketball. The Warriors rely on speed and pacing, pushing the pace and spacing out the floor in an effort to find open shots. The Rockets can play an uptempo style, with Chris Paul keeping the ball moving, but isolation features a little more prominently.
The Warriors averaged 117.7 points per game during the regular season, good for second most in the NBA, and they did it on 101.78 possessions, the 10th most. The Rockets averaged 113.9 points per game during regular season, 11th in the League, but with 98.43 possessions, 27th in the League, the pace was much slower. The Rockets slower pace is, in part, a product of their defense, which switches on screens and forces more passes. They also do a good job of preventing teams from getting out in transition.
A slower game, like the 97.5-possession pace we saw Sunday, favors Houston. So too does the grittier style of play that sometimes comes along with it. Game one saw tempers flair and technicals fly for fouls called and not called. The landing-zone ‘fouls’ were only part of it. Look for the refs to call a tighter game Tuesday night, to prevent things from getting out of hand. That will certainly break up the flow.
More fouls can also change lineups. Curry, for example, has a nasty habit of reaching on defense. He picked up unnecessary fouls against the Los Angeles Clippers, which cost him playing time on occasion. Ultimately, it didn’t matter in the first round, but it could matter a lot in a close series with a smaller margin for error. Harden feeds on players who reach, racking up the free throws. While Curry and Harden won’t normally be guarding each other, they will find themselves matched up on switches.
Curry found himself in foul trouble in game one, and the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report has subsequently noted that he should have fouled out. The Warriors can’t risk losing him for stretches, even with Durant producing on offense. But a more tightly called game means Curry could spend more time on the bench. That, of course, favors the Rockets.MORE NEWS: COVID: Muni To Suspend 'Short' Line Service Citing Vaccine Mandate Staffing Issues
Golden State pulled out a close one Sunday night to go up 1-0 in the series. But they may not be so lucky Tuesday night, if game two is a similarly scrappy affair.