For the fourth time in five seasons, the Rockets and Warriors will meet in the playoffs. This series may have arrived a round earlier than expected but it's still a much-anticipated rematch of last season's instant classic Western Conference Finals.
MORE: Rockets vs. Warriors series preview
The Warriors did ultimately prevail last season, but the outcome hung in the balance almost until the final whistle. In retrospect, it may feel like a Warriors win was inevitable because, well, they're the Warriors, but that series was far from a foregone conclusion. Houston had chances to win and, while they came up short, created a blueprint they can follow again this season.
Making the most of being healthy
After dispatching the Jazz in five games in round one, Houston enters this year's series with both a rest and health advantage. Most notably, Chris Paul appears to be 100 percent physically and is playing some of his best basketball of the season.
While the Rockets had a shot in Game 7 last season, Paul's injury put Houston in a massive hole. His ability to bother Steph Curry defensively is crucial and his offensive stability is fundamental to Houston's plan to have at least one of him or James Harden on the court at all times.
Similar to how the Rockets get Paul back, the Warriors will also have a healthy Andre Iguodala. Iguodala missed the final four games of the 2018 Western Conference Finals and the Warriors had a surprising lack of composure at times in his absence. Paul will have a much greater box score impact but Iguodala defence on Harden and role as a de facto backup point guard is crucial for Golden State's system and makes Houston's job that much more difficult.
The Warriors do have one notable absence, however: DeMarcus Cousins. In Cousins, the Warriors lost an All-Star-caliber centre but the Rockets lost a potential avenue of attack against the Warrior defence. As great as he is on offence, Cousins can be a defensive liability and would have likely struggled to contain Harden and Paul.
In the two regular season games Cousins played against the Rockets, Houston was conspicuously reluctant to force him to switch onto Harden. Houston relentlessly hunts mismatches and the fact that they didn't hammer Golden State's most obvious weakness was a sign they were likely saving this tactic for the playoffs. Now, the Rockets must adapt to a stouter Warrior defence.
While not the anchor he was in his first stint as a Warrior, Andrew Bogut is still a very capable rim protector. For the Rockets to beat the Warriors, they have to play Bogut off the floor. If he is able to hang around the rim and affect every interior shot, Houston's offence won't be efficient enough to keep pace.
The easiest way to neutralize Bogut is with a stretch big like the Clippers did with JaMychal Green, but Houston doesn't have a true stretch big other than PJ Tucker. So instead, Houston has to force Bogut to switch onto Harden or Paul out on the perimeter where they can attack him in space and open up room for Clint Capela around the rim.
If the Rockets are successful in limiting Bogut's effectiveness, Kevon Looney will inherit a significantly larger role. Looney has become a shockingly good switch defender on Harden and Steve Kerr is comfortable with him in this matchup, but he has never played more than 24 minutes in a playoff game. With Jordan Bell out of the rotation, Kerr may be forced to play Draymond Green at centre for much longer stretches than usual.
On the defensive side of the ball, Houston does have to overcome a significant loss. Trevor Ariza was a fantastic defender for Kevin Durant - at least as much as one exists. His departure last summer hurt the Rockets in general but the concern came almost entirely due to his utility in this matchup. Austin Rivers and Danuel House have been solid offensive replacements but neither can approximate Ariza's defensive impact.
Most likely, Tucker will draw the Durant assignment this time around. Tucker may be giving up around eight inches but he is the only Rocket with a plausible chance of slowing down the four-time scoring champ. That leaves Eric Gordon on Draymond Green which isn't ideal but is a mismatch Houston can live with given Green's inconsistent half-court offensive impact.
If Houston can find the right defensive assignments, their main question becomes how they will incorporate switching. As a general rule this season, the Rockets switched much less than they did last year. The exception to this is that they switched almost everything when Harden is involved in the action to help ease his defensive burden.
In the first round against the Jazz, this worked extremely well. Houston did a fantastic job fighting through screens to avoid switching into exploitable mismatches. The downfall to this tactic is that it can open up space for shooters but Utah couldn't make them pay, shooting just 26.3 percent from three and scoring 97.8 points per game in the series.
A big reason Houston was able to slow down Golden State last season was that switching helped them contest almost all of Curry, Durant and Thompson's shots. The Rockets did a good job bridging these two philosophies in the four regular-season matchups and held the Warriors to just 47.9 percent from the field.
No matter how you slice it, Houston has quite the task ahead of them. This Warrior team may have more blemishes than any since Durant's arrival but their peaks are just as high as they have ever been. The Clippers certainly put a bigger scare in them than anyone anticipated, but the Rockets believe they can take the next step and put an end to the Warriors Western Conference dominance.