Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Stephen Curry and Trevor Ariza
- If the Warriors keep throwing Kevin Durant into isolation situations, whether out of tactical considerations or because Durant is chasing some sort of ideal of what he needs to be, Houston will have a shot here
- Chris Paul will play. He’ll come off the bench and try to give the Rockets five minutes. He will play so that at least he can say he tried
- It would take a game drastically out of character from the rest of this series for it to be a shootout
HOUSTON — I do these radio hits, small interviews. I like doing them; I like talking about basketball in a medium that forces me to be concise. Answer the question, deliver the point, add in the evidence, and get in and out in 45 seconds.
I’ve been asked since preseason on shows from Charlotte to L.A., from Austin to Madison, “Can the Rockets really challenge the Warriors?”
Challenge. Not beat, heavens no. Just hang. Can they hang? Are they a real threat? And because I do these enough, I essentially develop go-to answers. But my answer for this is one that I really developed, because I thought a lot about it. The answer was always this:
“Yes, Houston is a real threat. Here’s why: They are the only team that can go toe-to-toe with Golden State and say ‘OK, you want to have a shootout? You bring your shooters; we’ll bring ours,’ who can say ‘OK, you want a defensive slugfest? OK, let’s get in the mud,’ and at the same time say ‘You have four stars? We have James Harden and Chris Paul. Let’s go.’ They have enough to force the Warriors into a Game 7, and if they get home court, the home team usually wins those games.”
Those answers are usually followed by the question, “So can they win?”
I would say “Can? Sure. Will? Probably not.”
And so it is that on Monday the Houston Rockets will host the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals with a spot in the NBA Finals and a date with destiny on the line. Can the Rockets win? Sure.
Here are the angles:
WHICH WARRIORS SHOW UP?
Since the start of whatever we will wind up calling this era of Warriors basketball — the one that really began when Steve Kerr showed up in 2015 and took a hot-shooting first-round out and turned it into one of the most dominant teams ever — I’ve never heard Oracle grumble the way it did in those first 12 minutes of Game 6.
Oracle can overwhelm you when the Warriors are going. The decibel level becomes so painful, one prominent media member wears headphones the entire time he’s there. When Steph Curry hits a 3 in the middle of a run, it feels like the roof is going to come off and shoot into the stratosphere.
But when Kevin Durant was clanging ISO jumpers in that first quarter and the Rockets were building an ill-fated, 17-point first-quarter lead? The Oracle crowd is like you when you come in for that Monday morning meeting and everyone’s already taken all the blueberry muffins and left nothing but pumpkin.
Warriors fans are smart, passionate and at this point, understandably a little entitled. When Durant was building a brick house, you could hear not just the disappointed “aah”s that come with a miss but “Come on, KD!” and “Run the offense!” It’s a weird situation for the second-best player on the planet to be getting this kind of reception, but that’s what happens when you join the Warriors.
There’s a lot of speculation about why the offense has been driven into the dirt in this series. Most of it, honestly, is pretty simple. The Rockets are switching everything, and when that happens and the ball movement isn’t creating anything, Durant posts up his mismatch and looks to score 1-on-1 because he’s Kevin Durant.
But in Game 6, it seemed a lot like the Warriors were just running headfirst into the ISO instead of running stuff to see if they could get some movement. When a small-ball lineup (notably without Durant) hit the floor in the second quarter, Curry sparked the comeback. When Durant returned, the offense was in rhythm and the Warriors had recognized that the Rockets, exhausted and shorthanded, weren’t as sharp as they needed to be.
So Golden State pushed the pace, forced the switch miscommunications (notably using Klay Thompson as a screener), and created open looks for just the second time in this series. Voila.
If Golden State keeps the pedal down, if the Warriors push the pace, if they force an exhausted and undermanned Rockets team to work constantly, they’ll win the war of attrition, the dam will break and Golden State will cruise. If the Warriors keep throwing Durant into isolation situations, whether out of tactical considerations or because Durant is chasing some sort of ideal of what he needs to be, Houston will have a shot here.
THE CHRIS PAUL QUESTION
The line has gone from opening around Warriors -5 to Warriors -6.5, and there’s been no movement back, which indicates pretty strongly that Chris Paul isn’t expected to play by the bookmakers. My read on it, based on how these things usually go?
Paul will play. He’ll come off the bench and try to give the Rockets five minutes. He won’t be able to, will sit in the first half and not come back in. We’ll be treated to heart-wrenching scenes of him being emotional on the bench as he’s not able to play in the biggest game of his career, a Game 7 at home with a Finals spot on the line.
Paul will play so that at least he can say he tried. He played through a pretty bad hamstring injury in Game 7 vs. the Spurs in 2015 and wound up hitting the game-winner. But this injury is worse. The bigger issue is that Paul may wind up being a liability if he does play, and if that’s the case, it’s just as bad, if not worse, than if he were to not play at all.
There’s no good scenario here for Houston, plausibly. Hamstring injuries are too tough. It’s a shame.
James Harden had a good Game 6. Overall, he really did. He faded down the stretch, sure. The Warriors were sending fleet after fleet of defenders at him, bumping him the whole way, and he couldn’t get a call, couldn’t make a shot. He was tired and worn out and things didn’t go his way.
Harden didn’t shoot a single free throw in the second half despite mostly driving. I could break down all the calls for you, but it wouldn’t matter. It is what it is.
One thing Harden can’t do in Game 7 is fall, though. He has to keep his feet, because when he falls and misses, the Warriors recognize it and instantly run, creating 5-on-4 situations. They did the same thing to Russell Westbrook in 2016. You fall down trying to get a call, you don’t get it, and they make you pay for it. It’s insult to injury, or maybe the other way around, but the result is usually open 3s.
Harden has worn down. Bryan Mears looked at Harden’s quarter-by-quarter true shooting, and the results are not pretty. Harden has to avoid that tonight. The Rockets need him to be great, every single minute. If his shot’s off, the Rockets are done. If Harden doesn’t get calls, they’re done. If he can’t get the energy to finish at the rim, they’re done.
One interesting thing I learned about this series: It’s not really anything Harden does. He’s in great shape. He’s in good condition. The Rockets aren’t playing him more than 40 minutes per game. He just wears out. The Rockets have canceled shootaround this season, permanently, and yet before Game 5, I saw Harden walking around in the usual shootaround team at the arena. It turns out Harden was the one who fought to keep shootarounds, and he comes in and goes through his routine on his own.
Harden’s not lazy. He’s not out of shape. He just physically doesn’t have the endurance, which makes Paul’s injury that much worse.
THE CASE FOR WARRIORS (-6.5)
At -5, where it opened in most places (as low as -4 in some spots), I liked it a lot better. The Warriors seem to know that if they need to, they can go back to Curry running the offense, and it just makes them impossible to stop. They’re winning the pace battle. They’re winning the depth battle. They have the most talent. They have the most shooting. They have the better defense.
Houston has a chance here, and the Rockets are the first team to ever be more than a five-point underdog in a home Game 7. The only other team in our database going back to the early 2000s that was an underdog for a Game 7 at home was, fittingly, these Houston Rockets in their 2015 series vs. Paul and the Clippers.
The Rockets deserve a world of credit for their season. They might hang in this one, and one more close game seems right. If they get a crazy outlier shooting performance, then they can pull off the incredible, setting up one of the most fun-to-bet Finals ever vs. LeBron James. But they’re without their second-best player.
I lean toward home teams in Game 7s, not just because history says that’s usually how it goes, but because by Game 7, you’ve exhausted all your options. You know what the other team is doing, not just schematically, but down to its individual movements. It’s why the Warriors are doing things like “jumping out to shooters right when James Harden gets to the third free throw stripe” instead of earlier or later. They know the timing by now. So when everything is predictable, it comes down to who hits shots, and the home team usually hits shots.
But the Rockets have a wider 3-point variation than most teams. They go cold about as often as they get hot. Their legs are shot from exhaustion. And they’re facing the best shooting team of all time.
Warriors (-235) seems right, but the number’s high enough to give pause. One plausible scenario involves a close game throughout and then one more roundhouse run from Golden State in the fourth when Durant comes back in to finish it.
THE CASE FOR UNDER 207
The under hit again in Game 6 thanks to Houston basically shutting down mid-way through the third. The under is 5-1 in this series, with Game 3 at Oracle the lone exception. Game 7s are tight, ugly affairs. Just look at what happened in Cavs-Celtics. They’re rock fights. Houston’s going to try to keep the pace down as much as possible. The Warriors got out and ran in Game 6 and it still wasn’t enough, although that miserable first quarter was part of it.
This might get tight because of how Golden State is looking to push, but on the road, despite having confidence the Warriors will win this game, I don’t want to go over 205 too much. It would take a game drastically out of character from the rest of this series for it to be a shootout.