As the old adage goes (from the the late great Coach Dennis Green), “They were who we thought they were.”
Game one of the Western Conference Finals pitted the two teams the NBA at large has been waiting to see play since the Point God himself Chris Paul was traded to the Rockets last June. How would two ball dominate guards, one a transcendent scorer and playmaker and one a top five all time point guard, mesh in an ISO-heavy, three’s or layups kind of team. Well the regular season showed us they would fit together just fine, with the Rockets running out to the best record in the NBA and a #1 seed in the West.
Read the many articles or listen to the various writers and they would tell you this team was built specifically to beat Golden State. They had a rising defensive rim runner in Capella (who played out of his mind in the previous series against the Jazz). They had defensive, athletic wings in Trevor Ariza, PJ Tucker, and Luc Mbah a Moute who were suppose to provide the Three and D offense/Defense teams so desperately look for. Chris Paul was suppose to alleviate the concerns we had about James Harden wearing down in the playoffs.
And for the most part, this season showed us that could work. “Seven seconds or less” became “ISO-Stepback / Drive and Kick”. The Rockets were a top six defense in the league and the second best offense this season, and they looked poise to give the Warriors their hardest matchup since Lebron in the ’16 Finals. This season was about the Rockets, how it was their time, how they could take down Goliath.
But sometimes you want to leave sleeping giants where they lie, and someone accidentally played their Poké-flute and woke them up. For every article on how Lebron can do Lebron things which means he’s an automatic Finals bid every season (just maybe not this season), and for every sports nerd talking about the the perfect math the Rockets are playing, we all forgot one thing: The Warriors are the best team of the decade.
Whey they are engaged, when they are pushed, when they try, it’s hard to see anyone beating them. This WCF’s matchup was about two things and two things only: 1) Could the Rockets match up with Kevin Durrant and 2) Could Harden play at an elite/efficient level for an entire playoff series.
Well the answer to the first question was a resounding no, with Durant posting an insane 37 points on 14 for 27 shooting. There were times when, on four straight possessions, Durant scored on four different defenders, sizing them up and deciding which series of moves to unleash. Put a smaller defender on him and he rises up and shots a three. Try a bigger defender and he blows by him. Put Nene who was sitting for the entire first half on him and the result was the same.
However, for all the deserved Kevin Durant love we should be throwing, Harden matched him and then some for the night. A 41 point 14 for 24 display in ISO ball efficiently proved that while no one could guard Durant, the same could be said for Harden. For every “anything you could do I can do better” that happened between the two players, the Warriors other players are the ones who put the dagger in the hearts of the Rockets.
The key to the Rockets winning is of course, getting their non-Harden players to, you know, score the basketball. While Harden went 5 for 9 from deep, the rest of the team went a frosty 8 for 28 (28.5%). And it makes all the sense in the world when you realize what the Rockets offense is when Harden is on the floor. They run the shot-clock down and then when it hits under ten seconds, Harden does some moves and either drives, scores or passes and the teammate catching is either not in rhythm or not in a position to score when the buzzer goes off. It’s exactly the type of offense the Warriors will take. Sure, let Harden get his points, his step backs, his drives. But ISO heavy ball takes a toll on his energy, and it’s unsustainable for a playoff series against this level of competition.
But it’s the exact type of offense the Rockets should force Golden State to play. The Warriors are the most talented team in the league with some of the best individual scorers. However, their offense is predicated on passes and screens and sets to get their all-world shooters open or to get easy layups. Steve Kerr looks for a minimum of 300 passes per game for the Warriors. When they hit over that mark, they win in the playoffs. Every time. When they lose, they are under that mark. They won last night with under 300 passes, and when watching the game it was easy to see why.. Durant took multiple possessions to go ISO ball on his defender. And it worked, most of the time. But that same unsustainability with Harden exists with Durant. If the Rockets can get the Warriors out of their offense, and force the Warriors to play the type of basketball Kobe dreams of, they might have a chance at beating this Golden State team.
The Rockets shouldn’t try and beat the Warriors at their own game. They should try and make the Warriors play theirs. That’s the only way to win. It’s easier said than done, because at the end of the day, when the Warriors are engaged, awake, and motivated – there are few who can stand in their way.
They may have been sleepwalking through the season, but in the end, when it matters, they are who we thought they were. Now it’s up to the Houston to turn them into something they’re not – the Rockets.