The Houston Rockets had a better offense, a better defense and a better record than the Warriors during the regular season. The Rockets also beat the Warriors two out of three times. The Rockets were better than the Warriors.
But those basic, surface-level metrics don’t get to the heart of what’s really important in the upcoming Western Conference Finals, because they don’t account for the Zaza Pachulia Factor. Or “ZZPF.” An advanced statistic of sorts.
This is a look at the advanced metrics that could determine the winner of the upcoming playoff series, a statistical look at a game played by human beings. The metrics that show where the Warriors have advantages and where they’re vulnerable.
Advantage No. 1: No more Zaza
The Warriors center probably won’t play against the Rockets. He hasn’t played at all during the playoffs, not even during garbage time.
Pachulia started all three games against the Rockets during the regular season, and the Rockets made 46 3-pointers and shot 36 percent from behind the arc in those games. They exploited the ZZPF.
During the regular season when Pachulia was on the court, opponents made 39.6 percent of their 3s — but just 34.4 percent of their 3s when he was on the bench. Pachulia destroyed the Warriors’ perimeter defense, because he’s not a perimeter defender. He’s a low-post defender.
In the playoffs, the Warriors have played Kevon Looney instead of Pachulia. And with Looney on the court, opponents have made only 28.1 percent of their 3s, as opposed to 35 percent when he has been on the bench. Looney is an excellent perimeter defender. He’s the anti-Zaza.
Looney probably will play at least 20 minutes per game in this series. During the regular season, he played only 35 minutes total against the Rockets.
The Rockets shoot more 3s than any other team. They’re averaging 39.9 3s during the playoffs. Defending that shot may be the key to beating them.
Through the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Warriors are defending 3s well. They’ve allowed opponents to make just 32 percent of their 3s — best in the NBA. The Warriors have improved their perimeter defense since the regular season, when they gave up 35.7 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.
They’re playing harder, and they’re not playing Pachulia. That’s what changed.
Vulnerability No. 1: No more Zaza
As much as Pachulia hurt the Warriors’ perimeter defense, he helped their 3-point shooting — despite never shooting a 3 himself.
Pachulia is the Warriors’ best screener. He led the team during the regular season with 2.7 screen assists per game. NBA.com defines a “screen assist” as any screen that directly leads to a made basket.
The Warriors shot 43.9 percent from behind the 3-point line as a team during the regular season when Pachulia was playing. That’s an extremely high number. When he wasn’t playing, the number fell to 37.3 percent. Pachulia is an underrated member of the Warriors’ offense.
He is no longer in their rotation. And without him, the Warriors are making just 32.9 percent of their 3s in the playoffs — the lowest percentage of the four remaining teams.