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Finally, the matchup everyone’s been salivating over

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Houston Rockets vs Golden State Warriors
Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) drives past Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) in the second half as the Houston Rockets face the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, October 17, 2017.

After 210 days, since the NBA kicked off its 2017-18 season, the wait will be over. The NBA will finally offer the matchup the world has waiting for — Rockets versus Warriors.

While the two teams ended up where everybody thought, the paths to get there were anything but predictable. Still, this matchup may very well end up being the real NBA Finals.

Steph’s health

While Stephen Curry looked fully healed during the Pelicans series, there were some visible small lingering effects. His movement looked good off the ball, but there were moments when he had the ball where he wasn’t able to blow by slower defenders like he normally would.

At times it took him one more dribble, or it resulted in a semi-contested layup where it would normally be a wide open one.

But his limited mobility was more apparent in his creativity. It was clear he wasn’t trying his normal crazy finishes in traffic. The kind where Curry absorbs contact but still contorts his body to get any kind of angle at the basket just weren’t there in round two.

Multiple times he saw Anthony Davis as the last man to beat in the lane and, instead of his normal aerial acrobatics, he tried to simply challenge Davis straight on only to get his shot sent into the fifth row. It may have been merely rust, but it looked like he was playing safe, trying to not put his body in any type of danger.

While he’s still very dangerous with this safer playing style, it also limits his effectiveness. Uninhibited Curry is unguardable, on the rare chance his shot is cold he can still use that threat to beat you off the dribble and finish easily at the rim. If he’s not attacking with the same ferocity he turns one-dimensional.

And that’s without saying anything about the other side of the ball.

Rhythm is something you hear more about offense but his defensive rhythm might be more important. In the first few games after his return his rhythm wasn’t there, he was blowing switches, losing his man off the ball and jumping at non-shooters.

That can’t happen against a Houston team that is sure to put him in every conceivable pick-and-roll. Curry already said he hopes it happens every play, and with the way the Rockets offense works, it actually might be.

Passing vs. Iso

Mike D’Antoni is credited as being an offensive innovator, but this Rockets team is pretty predictable on the offensive side of the ball — at least when it gets to crunch time. They rely almost exclusively on a pick-and-roll and then a James Harden or Chris Paul isolation.

During these playoffs, the Rockets have run isolation on 14.1 percent of their possessions, according to NBA.com. That’s the second-most of any team in the playoffs, but they only score on 41 percent of their isos, which puts them in 10th place.

By comparison, the Warriors have the third-lowest isolation rate with just 6.6 percent — and that includes the six games without Curry.

This strategy has served the Rockets pretty well so far as they have the highest offensive rating in the playoffs. But this type of offense plays right into the Warriors strengths.

With their small ball lineup, the Warriors boast four very good on-ball defenders and one underrated one in Curry. It’s one thing to go one-on-one with Joe Ingles but it’s a different story when you have to beat Klay Thompson off the dribble and then meet Draymond Green or Kevin Durant in the paint.

The way to beat the Warriors is use their switching defense against them, find a mismatch and then force a double team. But while Harden is a good scorer, unless he catches absolute fire, the Warriors will be content with switching on him, guarding him with one defender and staying in front and force him to actually finish baskets instead of reaching in and fouling.

That’s something Curry can do even if they pick on him. There is no need to double and if the Rockets are content with isolating Curry, with no other movement, that just gives all the Warriors defenders time to set up in help.

Who Starts at Center?

There’s no disagreement that the Warriors best lineup is the “Death Lineup” or “Hamptons 5,” but it would be a huge surprise if that unit starts Game 1 for the Warriors.

Kevon Looney is the favorite to move into the starting lineup as he’s had a successful playoffs thus far. But with Steve Kerr on the bench you can’t rule out any of the Warriors’ 20 centers, except for David West of course since he can only play at the end of the first and third quarters apparently.

For all the talk of who’s going to start though, it actually doesn’t matter too much. Green is going to play the majority of minutes at center so whoever starts is probably only going to be needed for around 15 minutes at the start of the first and third.

Could we see Zaza Pachulia get his first meaningful minutes of the playoffs? It’s impossible to rule out.

Matchup to Watch

Clint Capela vs. Draymond Green

While Green probably won’t start on Capela, he’s going to be very important against the Rockets burgeoning big man. Capela has broken out in his third year in the league and has averaged 14.4 points, 12.2 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game in the playoffs.

He’s also the favorite lob target of Harden and gets loose at least once per game.

Green is going to be key to not just slowing him down but maybe even forcing him off the court. When the Warriors go small they’ll look to Green to push the pace, like he did last series, and put pressure on Capela to play in transition.

If Capela isn’t able to keep up that means the Rockets will have to play Ryan Anderson or P.J. Tucker at center and that would be a huge win for the Warriors.

There’s been a groundswell of late saying Capela is going to be a problem for Green and the Warriors, but we also just watched Green shut down almost every lob and bother the best center in the league in Anthony Davis last round.

And we all know Green has heard all that talk, too, so this will be a fun one.

Most Important Warriors Role Player

Shaun Livingston

It could very well be Looney again, but with the shooters the Rockets employ and the rotations they use, Livingston is going to have to be his usual steady self to bridge the starters’ minutes.

And depending on who he shares his minutes with, he’ll probably draw a weaker defender and not Luc Richard Mbah a Moute or Tucker.

While Harden and Eric Gordon may not be easy to back down, off-ball movement notoriously confuses them and that’s exactly where Livingston excels when he’s not shooting turnaround jumpers.

He’ll need to rebound after shooting just over 40 percent from the field last round, but he’s looked spry so far this postseason.

Honorable mention to Jordan Bell in this spot, he’s played exactly 34 minutes this playoffs but it just feels like he could be have a huge role as the Warriors’ most athletic player.

Prediction

Warriors in five


Curtis Uemura is SFBay’s Golden State Warriors beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @CUemura on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of Warriors basketball.

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