Warriors vs. Rockets: The Frontcourt Battle


After facing first round exits last season, both the Warriors and the Rockets have battled their way through a tough conference and emerged as the remaining two contenders at the Western Conference Finals. Much like the Warriors teams of recent years, this Houston Rockets squad is playing the role of the massive underdog, and they have thrived in it so far.

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The path to the Conference Finals could not have been more different for each team. The Warriors avoided the dreaded injury bug and played through the season without much adversity, allowing time the team to gel and develop chemistry. Despite being down 2-1 in Round 2, The Warriors proved why they were the favorites and dominated Memphis on both ends of the floor in the remaining three games.

On the other hand, the Rockets were plagued with injury: Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones were sidelined for months, Donatas Motiejunas is out, and Patrick Beverley is racing against the clock to make a return. Yet, the Rockets with three late season acquisitions managed to earn the second seed and overcame a 3-1 deficit to defeat the heavily-favorited Clippers in the semi-finals. Despite the Warriors’ 4-0 regular season sweep of the Rockets, Houston should not be taken lightly. They’re hungry, possess some momentum behind them, and they have an MVP-caliber player in James Harden. However, their most important asset in this series may be their athletic front court of Dwight Howard and Josh Smith.

The Houston Big Men

Dec 28, 2014; San Antonio, TX, USA; Houston Rockets small forward Josh Smith (5) talks with Dwight Howard (12) during the second half against the San Antonio Spurs at AT&T Center. The Spurs won 110-106. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

After sending Anthony Davis, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol home, the Warriors face yet another physically imposing front court.

Dwight Howard has been arguably Houston’s best and most consistent player throughout these playoffs. Howard himself faced his fair share of imposing centers in Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan, but he’s currently averaging 17.2 points on 58.8 percent shooting, 13.8 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks after 12 games.

Howard only played in 2 regular season games against the Warriors but struggled due to a nagging injury and foul trouble. The Warriors were able to overcome Anthony Davis’ explosive face up game and the Memphis duo’s proficiency in the post. However, they haven’t faced a center with a pick and roll game as consistent as Howard’s.

What Dwight lacks in finesse, footwork and touch, he makes up for in his strength and athleticism. He’s able to set a bruising screen and roll to the basket for a lob in an instant. In addition to Harden/Smith and Howard’s two man game, Houston is loaded with capable three-point shooters, making it difficult to collapse in the paint to stop a lob to Howard or a Harden trip to the free throw line.

Andrew Bogut will have the duty of containing Dwight. On paper, it seems relatively simple. Bogut must show enough help to prevent the Harden drive yet be in a spot where he can get back to Dwight before he’s able to finish. It’s easier said than done, but Bogut and the Warriors can’t let Dwight get comfortable in the paint. Bogut has the ability to agitate other centers with sneaky tactics like holding and moving screens. The Warriors will undoubtedly have an advantage if Dwight loses composure and rhythm, as he becomes more easily baited into silly frustration fouls.

Mar 8, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors forward

Draymond Green

(23) is congratulated by center

Andrew Bogut

(12) after making a shot while being fouled against the Los Angeles Clippers in the third quarter at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Clippers 106-89. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Smith has been huge for the Rockets. He was generally seen as an inefficient team player with the Detroit Pistons before being picked up by Houston but has proven his worth during this postseason. He’s found an impactful role for this team and his unique chemistry with Howard goes back to their childhood.

His ridiculous 37 percent shooting from three-point territory through the past 12 games is quite impressive considering he averages 24 percent throughout his career. The “Let Josh Smith shoot” game plan should be out the window by now. Smith is an athletic forward who has the ability to stretch the floor, set up his teammates, and get to the rim.

He’s averaging 12.4 points and is also proficient at running the 4/5 pick and roll with Howard. He’s quick enough to handle the ball and seamlessly lob it up to Howard for an easy two points. Smith demonstrated strong facilitating skills in the Rockets’ demolition of the Mavericks. His versatility on both ends on the floor may give the Warriors some fits. Because of his own versatility and tenacity, Draymond Green will most likely be Smith’s primary defender. Green’s IQ, long reach and defensive foot speed is unlike anything the Rockets have had to face yet. He will need to utilize his wingspan to disrupt Smith’s passing lanes and jump shots in order to limit the Rockets’ offensive onslaught.

Against the athleticism of the Rockets’ front court, hustle and rebounding will be essential. Houston’s game plan will be primarily to get to the rim, get to the line, or get a three-point attempt. Harden’s penetration along with the pick and roll game with Howard will open up the opportunity of an open three from Ariza, Terry, Smith, or Brewer. Daryl Morey has done a fine job of surrounding the core of Harden and Howard with a deep unit of capable shooters and defenders.

Ultimately, the Warriors’ best chance of hindering Houston’s offensive firepower is to limit Dwight Howard’s impact. Bogut and Green need to get him frustrated, tired, and into foul trouble. Howard’s impact heavily determines Houston’s success. If he can’t replicate the consistency he showed in the previous two rounds, Houston will lose the reliable inside presence that allowed their offense to flow against Dallas and the Clippers. Stopping Houston’s pick and roll will be a deciding factor in the Warriors’ path to the NBA finals.

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