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Rockets-Warriors Game 2 preview: Without Dwight, bench and Ariza are key

Howard is questionable (left knee sprain) for Game 2, leaving Houston in the hands of James Harden, Trevor Ariza, and the Houston Rocket bench.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Not only is this my first write-up for TDS in a long time, it is also a preview for a game that no one thought would have to be written in the first place. Clutch City returned in the Western Conference semis, but can they sustain it against a team with one of the best regular season records in NBA history?

After the Rockets generated a 49-33 lead nearly halfway through the first half, Golden State stormed back to take the lead, retaining home court with a 110-106 victory at Oracle. Overall, it was an incredibly competitive (and, if nothing else, fun to watch) first playoff contest between these two teams.

The biggest story coming into Game 2 is the status of Dwight Howard. Golden State's small line-ups torched Houston as Bogut, Lee, and Ezeli combined for fewer minutes (31) than any other starter individually. Although Smith racked up 3 blocks, and Capela and Jones had impressive blocks of their own, the Rockets lacked adequate rim protection without D12 in the middle.

After Josh Smith rolled into Howards left leg on Tuesday, Jonathan Feigen reported that Dwight Howard is listed as questionable for Game 2 with a left knee sprain. When discussing his injury, Howard said:

I have to listen to my body. Nobody can understand an injury but the person that is injured. It’s going to be how I feel. If I feel I can tolerate it and go out and play with it, then I will. But my career is the most important thing. I want to do what I can to help this team, but I cannot help the team if I’m hurt."

The Rockets have a nearly identical record with Dwight (29-12) as they did without (27-14), making his absence something the roster has learned to compensate for on their way to the No. 2 seed. Howard has played very well in the playoffs, and his loss will certainly change the way Houston goes about its business on both sides of the ball.

On the upside, Howard has said that he has "no doubt" that he will be returning to play in the series, relieving a lot of stress after watching the initial video.

I want to highlight three key things to watch in Game 2.

Harden vs. Curry

Obviously Rockets fans are upset by the four-point loss, but it's hard to understate how much fun this game was to watch, largely because of how well the MVP and his runner-up battled back and forth. One assist shy of a triple-double, Harden was second only to Dwight in rebounds (Howards gobbled 13 in 26 minutes) and led the team in scoring at 28. Harden only got to the line 6 times, but shot 11-20 from the field, including fancy handles and tough mid-range jumpers.

Curry responded by scoring 34 points, 6 boards, and 5 assists, including several impressive three point shots.  One gave the Warriors a 58-55 lead heading into halftime, followed by another devastating transition three that gave Golden State a 9-point lead with around 3 minutes remaining. Without Klay Thompson to back him up, Curry was dominant all game offensively, lifting Golden State to victory.

Curry carried the Warriors offense amid Houston's first quarter barrage and Harden scored 21 second half points after dishing out 7 first half assists. This Western Conference shootout will continue to produce some loud and flashy fireworks. While there will be nights where they seem to cancel one another out, they will both be relied upon in those fourth quarter or overtime scenarios when the game is within a possession. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, win or lose.

Bench Play

Houston will need more bench players to step up to take down this juggernaut of a Warriors team. Clint Capela, who has played more playoff minutes than regular season minutes, had a wonderfully productive 13 minutes off the bench. Terrence Jones and Corey Brewer, on the other hand, combined for 18 points on just 5-17 (29.4 percent) shooting in 25-plus minutes a piece.  Golden State got a playoff career best of 18 points out of Shaun Livingston alone.  Livingston tore Houston apart in the second quarter, where he reeled off 14 of his points.

The Warriors bench outscored Houston's 34-27, and in games where the margin was as thin as four points, that deficit matters. It also matters because Houston was in a functional tie in most other categories. For example, in points in the paint (52-50, HOU), second-chance points (12-13, GSW), fast break points (28-28), and points off turnovers (20-19, HOU) the scoring was incredibly even. The Warriors shot just 0.2 percent better than Houston from the floor on the evening.

Hopefully Clint can deliver another efficient performance in a game where Houston gets more contributions from Jones and Brewer. Losing Beverley and Motiejunas is a big blow to the Rockets depth, forcing them to rely on a hodgepodge bench unit and Jason Terry running the point. Harden can't carry the entire load against a team like Golden State, requiring them to get the most out of their second unit.

Ariza's Play Will Be Key

Trevor Ariza racked up 20 points on half as many shots in Game 1, shooting 80 percent from downtown. Ariza was the only reason Houston had a shot to win the game down the stretch, generating the steal and subsequent three-pointer that cut the lead to just 2 points with 14.6 second left in the game.

Offensively and defensively, Ariza has been the glue guy, hitting big shots and playing fantastic defense at nearly every position. Trevor Ariza was fantastic in Game 1 the playoffs. Trevor is the only Rocket to start all 82 games and, to remind you, he takes a pay cut each year until 2018.

Final Thoughts

I'd like to be as optimistic as the next Rockets fan about our chances, especially since I ate crow on the Home Court Vantage podcast with Andrew Schelcht in a podcast titled "The Demise of the Houston Rockets," when Houston was down 3-1 against the Clippers.

I said that you could "put a fork" in this team, but then again, I've never been a good chef, so leave it to me to leave such a juicy topic under-cooked. Luckily for Houston, their head chef has a bit more experience than myself. I, like so many who thought they saw the writing on the wall, was stunned by the resilience of a Houston squad that has been fighting through injuries and doubts all season.

Houston's aggressive switches on screens is going to result in a lot of perimeter mismatches like Capela on Curry at the end of the half, so the Rockets will have to guard against Golden State simply picking their match-ups on offense. Ideally, Houston wants to neutralize the perimeter game for the Warriors by denying opponents space and forcing hasty decision-making.

If Houston is able to get another prolific game from Harden, get a solid bench contribution, and get a full-serving of Trevor Ariza, Houston may be able to overcome the small lineups trotted out by Steve Kerr.

Remember to check out the great coverage of this series over on Golden State Of Mind.