One of the most hotly anticipated series in the last decade of NBA Playoffs begins Monday night at Toyota Center featuring arguably the two best teams in the league and a pair of high-powered, historically good offenses. The Warriors are the defending champs, a near dynasty with four likely Hall of Fame players in the starting lineup. If the Rockets, the team with the league's best record this season, are going to move on to the Finals, they will have to take it from the Warriors. Golden State isn't giving anything away.
Game One is often a tone setter for series. Whoever wins, it isn't exactly a harbinger of what is to come, but the Rockets want to maintain their well deserved home court advantage and try to prove to the naysayers that they are for real. Here are four keys to the first game of the series.
4. Be decisive on defense.
The Rockets made the leap from average to very good defense this season. Much of that was the result of hustle and smart defensive rotations, something that was the team's weakness for quite a few seasons. Now that they have straightened that out, they will have to contend with not only a team full of star players, but one of the best passing teams in the half court the league has ever seen. They must make quick decisions when they switch and close out fast if they are going to slow down the Warriors even a little on offense.
3. Get help from the bench.
If there is on clear mismatch in favor of the Rockets in this series, it would seem to be their bench. They have the ability to throw a variety of different players for offensive and defensive purposes at other teams including Eric Gordon, Luc Mbah a Moute, Nene, Gerald Green and even Ryan Anderson. They will need solid, perhaps even outstanding, contributions from bench and role players in this series and will need to outplay the Warriors in this match up every game.
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2. Don't let off the gas.
One concern for the Rockets has been their sloppy and lazy play when they get a lead. Golden State will let teams score on them because they are good enough to blow teams off the floor. The Rockets have had that same advantage all season, but not against the Warriors. If they get a lead, they need to be mentally tough enough to not let up and give the Warriors any hope of coming back. Getting them down in the first place will be hard enough. The last thing you can do is let them up.
1. James Harden, be the MVP.
The NBA is a transcendent player league. It is not uncommon for the team with the best single player to be the team standing at the end of the season. Harden was, far and away, the best player in the regular season. He must elevate his game in the Western Conference Finals not only to exorcise some of the demons of playoffs past, but to be the guy that carried his team so often throughout the year. He has all the tools. He just needs to put it together in this series and he can quickly change the narrative about his previous playoff failures and re-write his own, and the Rockets, history.