- It’s reasonable to consider the possibility of the Warriors just demolishing Houston again.
- The Rockets’ hope is to match up with Golden State well enough to take four wins out of seven. They’re only a fourth of the way there and now have to take three out of four.
- The Rockets can play their best game and lose. They can also, however, play their best game and cover.
OAKLAND, Calif. — This series is not (pardon the pun) rocket science to figure out.
In Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, the Rockets made mistakes, played sloppily, missed shots and were handled. It wasn’t a bludgeoning, because Stephen Curry couldn’t get it going.
Game 2 was the combination of two predictable factors colliding. The Warriors played one of their worst games defensively in two years, thanks to a predictable lack of focus following a dominant win. Marcus Thompson of the Athletic was able to call out that they would play without drive or focus. You could see that coming a mile away. With Curry still missing shots and Houston making the right adjustments, the Rockets got their win to give themselves some hope. Houston was pretty much always going to take Game 2 after it lost Game 1.
And in the same vein, everyone saw Game 3 coming a mile away. The easy narrative is “STEPH BACK!” but the reality is that Golden State had this game on lockdown from the second quarter on. Houston was trying to hold onto the back of a speeding Humvee plowing through sand dunes. Curry was just the nitro boost that turned a blowout into a beatdown. It was the worst Rockets loss in playoff history and the greatest margin of victory for Golden State in the playoffs as well.
The Rockets played like garbage, shooting 13-of-27 in the restricted area, 4-of-9 on corner 3-pointers and 7-of-25 above the break. In the 37 minutes Draymond Green played, Houston had a 91 Offensive Rating, which is absurd for that long of a stretch for what was a historic offense. The Warriors were a tornado, and Curry made them this:
The Warriors are the better team; that’s not a surprise. The Rockets’ hope is to match up with Golden State well enough to take four wins out of seven. They’re only a fourth of the way there and now have to take three out of four.
If that sounds daunting, well …
THE SERIES IS ON THE LINE TONIGHT
However, here’s something to consider for Game 4 with the Warriors opening at -8.5 and tracking at -9 at some places before the Andre Iguodala injury discussed below: We have yet to see both teams’ A-game. The Rockets were sloppy and out of sorts in Games 1 and 3; the Warriors were unfocused and lethargic in Game 2.
So what happens when both teams bring it? Game 4 is probably when that happens. Houston knows it can’t go home down 3-1. There will be jokes, assuredly, but Golden State is undefeated when up 3-1 (3-0) since the Finals in 2016. The Rockets have too many veterans on the team that will know the jig is up if they lose. Win, and it opens up a world of possibilities, effectively resetting the series to 0-0 for a three-game series, with two of those games in Houston.
Golden State knows it can go for the kill shot in Game 4, and Curry is most definitely back. The Rockets know they can hang with these guys, maybe even beat them, if they can reset the series 2-2. So Tuesday at Oracle is the last stand.
A best game from both teams will be an all-timer: a clash of a 65-win monster and the defending juggernaut. Houston will hit shots; the Warriors will defend. James Harden will cook, Curry will shimmy, and it’ll come down to who will make plays. There’s always the possibility that one team or the other doesn’t have it and the game turns into a laugher, but given the ebbs and flows of this series, a quality game seems likely.
That favors Houston against the spread, but only because the line’s so high. You have a 65-win team playing for its season at +8.5. You’re not going to get that kind of situation often. The high overnight watermark 9-line is only slightly below the Warriors’ average margin of victory in these playoffs, but it is … (deep breath) … eight points below their home margin of victory (+17.3). Let’s all pause at the obscenity of that number.
It’s reasonable to consider the possibility of the Warriors just demolishing Houston again. After all, Curry’s out of his slump, and when the Warriors are engaged, no one’s been able to slow down or hang with, let alone defeat, Golden State. Still, this is Houston’s whole season, and it’s reasonable to expect one more good performance from the Rockets. That should be your guiding principle.
You can expect a good, if not great, performance from Golden State relative to its internal expectations at home with a chance to put foot to throat. Do you believe you can count on the same from Houston? Last year in this spot, in a 2-2 series vs. San Antonio, the Rockets melted into a puddle of sadness, opening the door for the closeout in Game 6. Are the Rockets just a team that’s going to fall apart in these situations? It’s not fair to hold them to that standard against this Warriors team, but that’s the hand they’ve been dealt.
If the Rockets show up, if they believe they can win, if Harden delivers another masterful performance, if Chris Paul (who is battling a leg injury) shows up, if Clint Capela does damage on the boards, if the Rockets get up into the Warriors on switches with more force, they can be in this game. Every team talks about “giving themselves a chance to win” because they know in tight games it’s often the twists of fate that determine things, not “clutch genes” or anything else.
The Rockets can play their best game and lose. They can also, however, play their best game and cover.
THE IGUODALA WRENCH
At practice Monday, Anthony Slater of the Athletic managed to find out, with about 50 of his fellow media members there, that Andre Iguodala is doubtful for Game 4. Iguodala suffered a contusion in a knee-to-knee collision with Harden in Game 3.
Doubtful is worse than “questionable,” which is worse than “probable.” The indication is that Iguodala will miss Game 4, but it will depend on how he responds to treatment and how he feels Tuesday. If he does miss the game, though, there will be the narrative and the reality.
In this series, with Iguodala on the floor, the Warriors have outscored the Rockets by 4.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s really good for a Western Conference Finals. With him on the bench, however, they have outscored Houston by 27.3 points, including a 17-point swing defensively. In other words: They’ve been way better with Iguodala on the bench.
Much of this is because of Kevon Looney. Looney has been a madman defensively, locking up Paul on Sunday:
Looney’s been tremendous, and Iguodala isn’t needed offensively when the Warriors have, you know, Kevin Durant.
Where this could hurt the Warriors is depth. No Iguodala for an already thin bench means more minutes for Nick Young and potentially Quinn Cook. The latter is solvable: You drop the big when he has the ball and help off. If you get beat by a huge Cook game, it was never in the cards for you. Young is more difficult. He’s a terrible defender and a horrible decision-maker. But he makes shots. He’s a +21.1 in this series because he feeds off the run, can knock down transition 3s, especially when open, and has the occasional sequence when he plays really good defense. His focus can help in spurts but not long term.
1. The Warriors are a drag in situations like this because there’s not much for me to dig into and show you all the ways the Warriors countered Houston. This wasn’t that. It was “they made all their shots and defended absolutely everything.”
2. There’s no complexity to show what opened the doors for the Warriors. In fact, some of the stuff they did, such as when they had Curry drive in the second quarter, find Green, then sprint around him for a corner 3 … didn’t work. Curry missed. They did better in the third when Curry just started chucking shots. That’s honestly a better strategy for Curry than anything else, and when the Warriors are losing like they were in Game 2, I always wonder why coach Steve Kerr doesn’t go to that: just have Curry start vomiting up shots from 35 feet. His percentage and the potential return on efficiency and momentum far exceed any potential cost.
3. Defensively, however, the Warriors did make some adjustments. In the first quarter, this sequence scrambled them:
The Warriors tried to help Curry out from getting filleted, as he has in this series, by blitzing, and the Rockets tore it apart. Their role players aren’t awesome playmakers, but they know the sequences well enough. “If Player A comes to help on a sequence, pass to teammate B. If a defender then comes to help, teammate B should pass to teammate C. If a defender does not help, teammate B should lay it up.”
That’s how Houston beat Golden State for the first five minutes of the game. Then Golden State switched it up. The Warriors helped more aggressively from the corner:
Giving up corner 3s against Houston is a death wish, on the surface. But that’s if Harden or Paul happens to be in playmaking position. Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker and Capela … the guys rolling on these sequences do not have the passing chops to catch the ball, make the read and deliver the corner pass.
(Side note: Of the million reasons why Golden State’s entire setup is so much more than talent, rather the specific way it comes together, Green’s ability to do this exact thing — set the screen, slip, short roll and deliver the pass to the lob or corner — is a monster part of it. That sequence is why teams have to switch. Well, that and the fact Curry can step back and launch from 30 feet out.)
Once Golden State started adjusting, it smothered Houston’s offense. Now your best player, Harden, doesn’t have the ball, the lob is cut off by the help man coming down and the open target can’t get the ball because the trigger man isn’t able to make that pass.
4. A lot has been made of Curry’s defense, and I’ll continue to say the same thing. Curry’s a limited defender who tries really hard. He has quick hands but limited mobility and very little strength. Some of his success in Game 3 was due to just random stuff, such as Harden losing the ball when Curry didn’t even reach:
But he also did his job in shading Harden left. Harden went right just three times and generated only one foul with two misses. Force him left and bring him to help, where Looney can clean up and Harden can’t make the corner pass:
Here, Harden gets where he wants, Curry can’t stay with him, and Harden misses the runner. That’s not an easy or tough shot; it’s just a shot. Did Curry play it well? Fine? Poorly? Great? These are the ones that are subjective:
5. I would provide you with analysis of how Curry got going, but like all things with Curry, it’s pretty self-evident. In the first half, the Warriors ran sequences to pop him off screens and try to find him open shots. Nothing worked. Then, here’s the one that got him going:
OK. Great play design. Excellent gamesmanship. Just high-level execution right there. Dude caught the ball and launched. That’s Curry. He nukes every game plan and the need for any sort of stratagem for or against. That’s what makes him Steph.
I asked Kerr at practice Monday if those things are necessary. He said they’ll continue to try to get Curry open looks because the key is that it takes just one. If they can get him a good shot, it’ll open up the rest. But the reality is it doesn’t matter. Good shot, bad shot, whatever. If Curry’s hitting, the Rockets are probably toast. If he’s not, they might be able to bring this series back to life and give us the first competitive series Golden State’s been in since 2016.