Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:04 AM

Sunday's Playoff Essentials

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Playoff Results | Playoff Projections

Western Conference Finals - Game 3 - Series tied 1-1
Houston at Golden State (-7, 226.5), TNT, 8:05 ET

After watching his team’s flat start and subsequent blowout loss, Boston head coach Brad Stevens is going to have a much easier time getting his Celtics focused for Game 4 in Cleveland.

Expect it to help Golden State’s Steve Kerr and Houston’s Mike D’Antoni get through to their teams as well since the tone for the first two games of the Western Conference finals was also set in the early going.

The Rockets need to withstand the first punch that a rested Warriors team will inevitably be packing after coming out looking satisfied with themselves at the beginning of Wednesday’s 127-105 setback in Houston. Those weren’t the defending champs we’ve grown accustomed to seeing.

After pulling away for a 119-106 on Monday night, talk about how the playoffs were already over began. Get the brooms ready. The Rockets and whoever got out of the Eastern Conference were sure to be swept. There’s no proof that the Warriors came out in an awful frame of mind due to overconfidence or boredom, but there’s no doubt they came out with a lack of focus and intensity regardless of the reason why.

When Draymond Green threw a pass out of bounds just 4:24 into Game 2, he left Klay Thompson alone as the only Golden State starter not to turn the ball over. Chris Paul ripped Green on the Warriors’ next possession to make it five miscues inside five minutes. The Rockets actually didn’t take the lead they wouldn’t relinquish the rest of the way until Eric Gordon drained his second straight 3-pointer at the 3:01 mark of the opening quarter, but the sloppy start was an ominous sign of things to come for the Dubs. They committed seven of their 15 turnovers in the first quarter, fell behind and gave Houston a chance to gain its footing in the series.

The Rockets were an excellent defensive team all season and felt their effort was lacking in the series opener but finally up to par on Wednesday. P.J. Tucker is of the opinion that Houston’s small lineup is the best in basketball, superior to even the “Hampton’s Five” look that Kerr started in the first two games and is likely to trot out here.

Clint Capela was again rendered ineffective, finishing with five points and no blocks while missing four of five free throws. The Rockets were concerned that he’d be taken out of the series, so the fact they won a game in which that came to fruition by 22 points could be considered a great sign.

Capela’s struggles double as a green light on my favorite play for Sunday night’s contest, which is to lay three points in the first quarter at [...] on the blind faith that Kerr having his team ready to play. He immediately noted their lack of effort, questioning their sense of urgency in the post-Game 2 press conference.

Green came out noticeably lacking the fire that he packed to open the series. He looked like he was going to maim James Harden within the first few possessions, picking up a technical foul 1:07 in. Golden State trailed 12-4, Green calmed himself down and then was fantastic the rest of the way, setting the tone on defense while doing all the little things on offense that make the Warriors tick like a Rolex.

Combined with the fact that the Rockets will have to get used to Oracle right out of the gate, calm themselves enough to execute and will have Capela start once again, all variables point to a strong first quarter from Golden State as it attempts to yank back momentum in the series.

The Warriors won the first quarter of the playoffs 28-17, taking San Antonio out immediately. It won a 35-34 shootout of a quarter in Game 1 against the Pelicans and took the first 12 minutes of the series clincher 32-26 in their last action in Oakland. Look for a strong start to give them the lead entering the second quarter for the first time in the Western Conference finals.

It remains to be seen what happens when the next 36 minutes unfold, especially since the Rockets were the NBA’s top road team and are 3-1 in away from Toyota Center in the playoffs. They’ve captured their last three games in Minnesota and Utah by double-digits, doing so by a combined 53 points.

Houston knows what it wants to accomplish in Game 3, having run an almost identical number of isolations in each of the first two games. According to Second Spectrum, the Rockets finished with 46 isos in Game 2 after 45 in Game 1 but shot the ball extremely well and got more players involved, leading to better rhythm. D’Antoni encouraged more movement, which paid off in Eric Gordon and Tucker combining to shoot 11-for-15 from beyond the arc to bail out Chris Paul and Harden, who shot a combined 4-for-20 on 3-pointers.

It’s no mystery that the Rockets’ primary objective is to wear down Stephen Curry, who isn’t 100 percent after suffering a Grade 2 MCL sprain in March. He’s not a liability, but in putting him in 43 plays as the primary defender, nearly double the workload he had to undergo in the first two rounds, Houston is ensuring that he doesn’t rest when he’s out there.

The fact that he’s 2-for-13 from 3-point range (15 percent) and went 1-for-8 on Wednesday suggests it’s working. It’s now on Kerr and his staff to adjust accordingly. That’s the name of the game in the playoffs, especially when two elite teams get together.

Chris David of wasn’t surprised that Houston rebounded in Game 2 since we’ve seen the Rockets post great numbers off a loss recently. The same can be said for the Warriors and CD filled us in on the eye-opening numbers.

“Similar to other championship squads in the NBA, Golden State’s success over the last three seasons can be attributed to its ability to avoid back-to-back losses. That was evident this season, especially with a full squad,” David explained. “If you throw out the team’s 7-10 record down the stretch when Curry was out and other players were rested, the Warriors went 13-1 in the regular season after a loss. Bettors should note that Golden State didn’t turn a profit (7-7 ATS) due to inflated lines but the offense showed up in a big way. In those 14 games, the club averaged 124.7 PPG and that helped the ‘over’ go 10-4.

“In this year’s playoffs, Golden State is 2-0 off a loss with a 99-91 win over San Antonio in Game 5 of the first round and a 118-92 victory in Game 4 over New Orleans in the second round. Make a note that Curry didn’t play against the Spurs. Including those results, the Warriors are 11-5 after a loss in the playoffs, which includes the infamous three straight losses to Cleveland in the ‘16 Finals,” added David.

Kevin Durant has been the best player in the series, the only one who has shown up with the same intensity level and delivered consistent results. He’s averaging 37.5 points and shooting 55 percent but has been in attack mode to a point where he’s dished out just one assist over two games. Klay Thompson followed up a 28-point Game 1 by scoring just eight points, shooting 3-for-11 and missing seven of his eight 3-point shots. Green, Iguodala and Curry all slumped too, while the bench, outside of Nick Young, wasn’t terribly productive.

Golden State has to prove that it hasn’t slipped in Game 3, which should provide excellent motivation to show out at home. What remains to be seen is how difficult the Rockets will make it on them. Houston is deeper and has been built specifically for this challenge. It hasn’t been this heavy an underdog since opening the season in Oakland as a 9.5-point underdog. The Rockets won that game 122-121. They won another game during the regular season as a ‘dog too. If nothing else, they won’t be scared. I just don’t expect them to be within a possession after the opening quarter.

Four of the five meetings between these two juggernauts have surpassed the posted total, including the first two games in the series. The number in those games closed around 225, while Game 3 features a slightly larger figure.

David doesn’t have an opinion on the total for Game 3 but if you’re leaning to Houston with the points, then you might want to press your luck with the ‘over’ or even back it up with the Rockets Team Total Over (109).

“Expecting Houston to win outright in Game 3 might be a reach, especially when you know the club is 6-16 in last 22 encounters against Golden State. While that alone might keep you off the sidelines, the angle that sticks out for me is the Rockets’ offense in those victories, which averaged 119.3 PPG. There was one anomaly (97-94) in that span. Even when Houston can’t connect, it still puts up triple digits these days and even the backups chuck non-stop from distance. If you’re leaning to the ‘dog come Sunday, I would definitely tie in the high side and certainly play the ‘over’ 109 on the team total too.”

All five conference finals games to date have been decided by double-digits. Game 4 will take place in Oakland on Tuesday.

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA

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