Mears: The Warriors Should Play the Rockets’ Own Game

Mears: The Warriors Should Play the Rockets’ Own Game article feature image

Pictured: Kevin Durant and P.J. Tucker. Photo credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Game 4 was about as isolation-heavy of an affair as we’ve seen since the ’90s before the old defensive rules were changed. The Warriors and Rockets assisted on just 40% of their field goals, a shockingly low number. In the regular season, the Warriors assisted on 68.5% of their field goals on average, which led the league. They pride themselves on ball and player movement, and especially using their shooting gravity to create holes in the defense for their passers. In Game 4, none of that was there.

You might think there were so many isolation possessions on offense because of the brilliant offensive players on the court. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden and Chris Paul are four of the best in the world at creating their own shot, so why not go iso-heavy, right? However, that’s not really how Golden State wants to play, and it was completely dictated by the defensive schemes, not the offensive ones.

Sometimes we get immersed in the offensive revolution that’s happening in the game of basketball — and it’s definitely happening, thanks to teams such as Golden State and the Moreyball Rockets. But there’s just as much of a defensive renaissance occurring as well, and both teams exemplify it perfectly with their ability to play small and put two-way wing players on the floor. Curry and Durant weren’t going one-on-one because they wanted to; they had to because both teams switched on every single pick-and-roll.

Houston is definitely winning the battle of styles in this series. The Rockets are playing their way, and they’re forcing Golden State to do so as well. That equated to a win in Game 4, but it’s not like the Warriors can’t win playing Houston’s style. It’s just a matter of whether they own it or not. If they continue to try to run their offensive sets — which certainly worked all season, so it’s hard to go away from them now — they could struggle to get good looks again. Here’s how their 3-pointers were broken up by NBA Stat’s classification of open shots:

  • Very tightly contested (defender 0-2 feet away): 0-for-1
  • Tightly contested (defender 2-4 feet away): 3-for-10
  • Open (defender 4-6 feet away): 3-for-7
  • Wide open (defender 6+ feet away): 3-for-8

Only 7% of the Warriors’ 3-point attempts in the regular season were classified as tightly contested. They had just five catch-and-shoot 3-pointers in Game 4; during the regular season they averaged about eight a game. The Warriors are still favored to win this series, but Houston has really found something here defensively.

Still, the Warriors can adjust. Again, this is a stylistic battle. The Warriors don’t want to play the Rockets’ game, and it showed in Game 4. The Rockets knew they had to ISO, and thus they made sure to have the right screener come up so they could get the defender they wanted on Harden and Paul. Golden State ISO’d out of desperation and thus had to settle for whatever the matchup was, whether it was Trevor Ariza or P.J. Tucker on Durant. Isolation possessions are hard enough as it is, and if the Warriors won’t just admit they have to play this style and optimize around it, they might find themselves in a must-win Game 6.