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NBA Daily: Austin Rivers Key To Rockets’ Chances

Houston’s hopes of winning the title rely primarily on James Harden and Chris Paul, but Austin Rivers has given the team an edge that just might put them above Golden State, writes Matt John.

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You know what horse has been beaten to death this season?

Houston not bringing back its wing depth after one of its best seasons ever. As the season was about to start, the Rockets’ failure to re-sign Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute almost always came up.

Both of them played a role in one of Houston’s most successful seasons in recent memory. Having them on the team would have helped their plans to win it all since the team knew it was going to face Kevin Durant and Golden State again in the playoffs. The Rockets replaced them with James Ennis III, Danuel House Jr., and Iman Shumpert, but none of them share the same reputation to that of Ariza alone.

More importantly, the team still has P.J. Tucker, because stopping Durant at his best is impossible. He is one of a handful of players – LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard – that has the physical advantages to overpower any kind of defensive game plan no matter how strong the opposition is.

So maybe their priority was not so much limiting Durant, but rather limiting his supporting cast, like Stephen Curry.

Enter Austin Rivers.

Saying Rivers would be the key for the Rockets to overcome the Warriors back when they brought him in would sound quite stupid.

Like, so stupid that it would be comparable to putting the song “Gangsta’s Paradise” in the trailer for a live-action film adaptation of Sonic the Hedgehog even though those two entities have nothing to do with each other. But who would be dumb enough to do that?

Anyway, following a disastrous tenure in Washington, Rivers has been a sneaky good find for Houston. It’s no coincidence that the team went 36-14 after they added him. James Harden’s thermonuclear offensive play catalyzed the run, but Rivers gave the team a fair amount of stability that it desperately needed. Best of all, it looked like the team may have had a Curry stopper on its hands.

A Warriors-Rockets rematch was bound to repeat itself, and though we all expected them to meet up in the conference finals, we finally got it in the semis. Rivers was out with an illness for Game 1, which is what many Rockets fans believe is the reason the Dubs barely squeaked out the win.

The Warriors handled the Rockets a little easier in Game 2 even with Austin’s return to the team, but after Game 3 came and went, the advantages that Rivers gave the Rockets came to the forefront.

By the skin of its teeth, Houston managed to beat Golden State with the most glaring reason being Stephen Curry’s worst playoff game of his entire career. The former two-time MVP scored 17 points on 7-for-23 shooting, including 2-for-9 from three as well as three turnovers. Even the best of the best have their off games. In this particular game, Curry looked mentally checked out.

The one who was primarily responsible for Stephen’s lousy game: Austin Rivers. Game 3 was the golden example of what was a running trend in the regular season. He made life absolutely miserable for Curry. By doing so, it negated a peak-Kevin Durant performance.

Also, his eight points on 3-for-6 shooting including 2-for-4 from three as well as having a plus/minus of +8 wasn’t too shabby either.

Rivers’ play was so good that it validated many Rockets’ fans beliefs that the series could be in Houston’s favor right now had Rivers played in Game 1 – To be fair, the Warriors were a few Stephen Curry bunnies from making this series all but a wrap.

This Rockets-Warriors series could very well decide who wins the championship. If the Rockets emerge victorious because of Stephen Curry’s blunders, then Rivers deserves a fair amount of the credit. This isn’t just about Rivers’ fantastic defense on Curry.

Rivers has been one of the Rockets’ most reliable contributors throughout the postseason. Though his role is substantially lesser than it was when he played for the Clippers, Austin is putting up the most efficient stat line he’s ever had in the playoffs. Keep in mind that this postseason is the first time Rivers has made it to the second round since 2015, so he doesn’t have the largest sample sizes.

It all starts with his excellent floor spacing. Rivers is currently shooting a blistering 52 percent from three. That kind of shooting on a team that values floor spacing as much as the Rockets do is so very crucial for them to have for the stretch run. Houston knows all too well from last year’s Western Conference Finals that it needs top-notch three-point shooting if it wants to keep its title hopes alive.

It doesn’t stop there. Rivers is posting playoff career-highs both in true shooting percentage – 63 percent – and effective field goal percentage – 62.5 percent. Providing that kind of offensive boost takes a lot of pressure off of James Harden and Chris Paul. His fantastic shooting is also proving to serve dividends for H-Town when he’s on the court.

Among Rockets who average at least 10 minutes a game, Rivers is second on the team in overall net rating, being a plus-12.8. The only Rocket who’s ahead of him is Iman Shumpert, who barely passes the 10-minute threshold as it is and didn’t get that many serious minutes until the Warriors series.

Rivers’ net rating also ranks 19th among players who play at least 10 minutes a game and have made it to the second round. Most of the players who are ahead of Rivers – a list of which contains Bucks and Raptors – are there because their teams have blown out their opponents multiple times.

Besides the shutdown defense, the fantastic shooting, and the very positive net rating, what Rivers has done is bring a whole new dimension to the Rockets.

One of Mike D’Antoni’s premier calling cards, since he’s been a head coach in the league, has been his small-ball lineups. The Rockets love playing their three-guard lineup of Harden, Paul and Eric Gordon. The group has played 182 minutes in the playoffs and has a net rating of plus-6. Rivers gives them a fourth guard to throw out there.

According to basketball-reference, Rivers has played 23 percent of his minutes at small forward, which no doubt comes from playing with the trio of Harden-Paul-Gordon. The four of them have played 19 minutes together and have a net rating of plus-22.7. 16 of those minutes have come against Golden State and against the rival, Houston is a plus-26.3.

It’s not Houston’s best group net rating-wise. It is, however, the group that D’Antoni has gone to in crunch time. This means that against the Warriors’ death lineup, Mike has relied on those four plus either P.J. Tucker or Clint Capela. The net rating being that positive shows that they hold their own against Golden State’s death lineup and then some.

Who would have thought coming into the season that Rivers would be such a vital piece of a team hoping to pull off one of the biggest upsets in the history of sports?

Austin Rivers was supposed to be nothing more than another rotation player for the Rockets. Since signing with the team back in December, he’s proven that there is so much more to him.

Not bad a for a guy whose current team tried to sneak its way into the Clippers’ locker room to attack him one only one year ago.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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