"Nobody believes in us." — Every disrespected athlete ever
It's a mantra that every underdog athlete since the dawn of time, in a meaningful athletic situation, has embraced — taking "nobody believes in us" and trying to convert it into some sort of emotional fuel to spur his team on to some axis-shaking upset in his respective sport. It's the proverbial chip on the shoulder, and channeled properly, it can be a powerful thing.
The Houston Rockets have been swimming in chips for the better part of the last ten days, having just come down from perhaps the most improbable of the nine successfully squashed 3-1 deficits in NBA playoff history. I mean, the Rockets were dead after Game 4 against the Clippers. DEAD. They lost Games 3 and 4 by 25 and 33 points, respectively.
Then in Game 6 they were dead again. Down 19 points late in the third quarter, they somehow came back and won. BY TWELVE. (By the way, we are all still trying to figure out what happened in Game 6, even with the series already closed out. It's like the autopsy results are delayed on a murder case, and we've already moved onto the next crime. Game 6 is still the weirdest event of my adult sports watching years.)
So now the Rockets are right back where they seemingly have been most comfortable this postseason — with absolutely nobody thinking they can achieve their goal. It is here where the Western Conference Finals begin, with the entire free world making funeral arrangements for the Rockets before the ball has even been tossed in the air.
$850. That's how much you'd have to wager, according to the latest odds, in order to win a paltry $100 on the Golden State Warriors in this series. To give you some sort of basis for just how prohibitive a -850 favorite is, the Rockets odds in their opening round series against Dallas (a team most thought the Rockets to be clearly superior to) were -280. So the Warriors are almost exactly three times the favorite against the 2-seed Rockets as the 2-seed Rockets were against the 7-seed Mavericks.
Seems crazy, but this Warriors team, led by 2014-15 NBA MVP Steph Curry, is about as well oiled a machine offensively as I can remember over the last decade, probably since the Suns teams of the mid-2000's, led coincidentally by two-time MVP Steve Nash. Curry is Nash 2006 on steroids, with the two having similar games, but with Curry just a little bit better at everything — better ball handling, other worldly shooting, better defense, just better.
Also, unlike those Phoenix run-and-gun teams, this Warriors team defends at a high level. That's how you win 67 games. That's how you become a -850 favorite in the conference finals over a two seed. So what must happen for the Rockets to win this series? Honestly, about a dozen things, but I'll pick out the three biggest things:
1. Dwight Howard must dominate
So often, teams learn about themselves amidst adversity that ends their season. The Rockets learned quite a bit about themselves amidst the adversity they experienced in that Clippers series, but fortunately, they learned them just in time to pull out of their Game 6 tailspin, and they can still apply these lessons this postseason. During that historic Game 6 comeback, the Rockets went away from feeding Dwight Howard in the low post. Too often in that series, the Rockets tried to make Howard a focal point by dumping it down to him in the low post, and he's just not that guy. He's more skilled than most big men, but this just in, there are hardly any skilled big men! For how often Dwight's post touches end in something negative (left handed flip tosses at the rim, turnovers in traffic, missed foul shots), he sure did get a lot of them. In Game 6, during the comeback, he became exclusively a screener and a board crasher offensively. GOOD! This should always be his role on offense, now and forever. Howard is a huge key to this series on the glass, keeping possessions alive at the offensive end (and preventing Warrior fats breaks) and preventing second shots at the defensive end. You can't give this Warriors team multiple chances on their offensive end. Dwight has to be a difference maker and stay out of foul trouble, because if he's out for long stretches, the Rockets will have to play small ball, and playing small ball against Golden State is like challenging 1999 Mick Foley to a hardcore match in WWE. Plays right into their hands.
2. Josh Smith needs to be the X-factor
Another key part of what will be this Rockets team's identity this series, for better or worse, is that any success they have will likely include Josh Smith playing a huge role, which would be a terrifying thought if someone had told you this when Smith was floundering for Detroit in November this season. However, Kevin McHale's chess move of inserting Smith into the starting lineup for Game 5 of the Clippers series has given Smith just the jolt he's needed to reengage. His three three pointers during the Rockets Game 6 comeback, his assist to Corey Brewer on the tying dunk, these were season saving plays. JOSH SMITH! The Warriors do everything "X Factor" player is Draymond Green. Basically, to win this series, the Rockets will need Josh Smith to "out Draymond" Draymond Green.
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Honestly, we can sit here and dork out over this match up or that match up, and try to figure out what parts of the opposition this team will attack or that team will attack. That's all well and good. Sometimes, it just boils down to teams making shots. When the Clippers series turned on a dime in Game 5, it wasn't because the Rockets all of a sudden found a way to stop Blake Griffin or Chris Paul. It's because the Clippers' role players/wing guys (namely J.J. Redick, Austin Rivers, Matt Barnes, and Jamal Crawford) stopped making shots. In the three Clippers wins, those four guys shot 53 percent from the field and 47 percent from three. In the final three losses, they shot 27 percent from the field and 21 percent from three. That's the thing about seven game series — eventually, water seems to find its level. The problem for the Rockets is that the "level" for Curry and Klay Thompson is ridiculously high. The Rockets need an unconventional drought from those two, like the Grizzlies got in Games 2 and 3 of their Western Conference semifinal series. It sounds obvious, but the Rockets need Curry and Thompson to just miss shots. Lots of shots.
Circling all the way back to the original premise of this post, the Rockets seem to be doing much better when nobody believes in them. Therefore, in theory, I would be doing a disservice to think they can even give the Warriors a series. Truth be told, I am ridiculously frightened for the Rockets in this series. Unlike the Clippers, who presented a handful of different solutions to the problem of defeating them, there is very little to attack with these Warriors. They shoot, they play their roles, they defend, and they have enough wings to attack James Harden in waves. I just don't see it for the Rockets….and that's exactly the way the Rockets seem to like it.
PREDICTION: Warriors in five.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast.