In the same way pressure makes diamonds, the Golden State Warriors’ beautiful style reemerged from having their backs crushed against the wall.
With their season and title hopes on the line in Game 6 at Oracle Arena, the Warriors found themselves when they needed to and came up with a throwback performance for a 115-86 win, forcing a series decider in the Western Conference Finals.
To get to that point, Golden State had to endure an early knockout blow by the Houston Rockets that left them in a 17-point hole at the end of the first quarter. That separation was partly due to the Warriors’ continued malaise, but much of it was Houston coming out with more stifling defence while knocking down eight 3-pointers.
Instead of wilting and giving in to their worst habits though, the defending champions answered the wake-up call in the third quarter to quickly erase a 10-point half-time deficit.
Golden State could have gone down accepting their new reality – one in which ball movement is eschewed in favour of isolations and one-on-one play. Instead, they got back to doing what they do best – putting pressure on the defence with fluid passing, off-ball actions and an egalitarian attack that capitalises on the open man, not the best mismatch.
No player on the Warriors has represented the iso-heavy style more than Kevin Durant, who shot 6-of-17 and recorded a usage rate of 33.9 per cent in the first half. After the intermission, Golden State looked like they did in the pre-Durant days, when Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson would pick teams apart with cuts and by scurrying through screens.
Curry and Thompson scored 21 and 16 points in the second half, respectively, shooting a combined 13-of-22 overall and 11-of-15 from deep. Durant’s usage rate dropped to 22.9 per cent, while Thompson’s was at 32.8 and Curry’s at 28.5.
What changed with the Warriors’ offence? Curry was on the ball more, while all the under-the-hood actions – the off-ball screen-setting and movement – was done with more purpose instead of being ignored and treated as a decoy.
Even more than Curry, Thompson was Golden State’s talisman. He ran through screen after screen and punished the Rockets whenever they were even the tiniest bit late or confused on their switching. His 35-point effort was reminiscent of the monster Game 6 he had against Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2016 Western Conference Finals, which kept the Warriors alive for another day and changed the course of history.
This time, Thompson’s explosion not only kept Golden State’s run going, but helped regain their identity.
Running out of gas
In many ways, the Rockets’ were the inverse of the Warriors in Game 6.
After an ensemble attack and hot shooting netted them a 17-point lead at the end of the first quarter, Houston’s offence got more and more sluggish as the contest wore on.
Chris Paul’s absence was impossible to ignore for long and seemed especially impactful when James Harden turned into a black hole in the second half. Working in isolation has been the Rockets’ bread and butter this season, but the first-quarter lead was built on finding shooters out of Harden attacks and not forcing the issue.
Too often in the second half, Harden drove with his head down and with the sole intent of drawing a foul, instead of spotting cutting team-mates. The result was nine turnovers and some ugly misses that sprang Golden State in transition.
Harden’s step-back 3s – a staple of his MVP campaign – were again off the mark, though he finally broke his streak of 22 straight misses from beyond the arc.
It’s fair to wonder how fatigued Harden was without Paul by his side to take on some of the burden. Still, whether he has the energy or not, Harden can’t win this series by himself.
Paul suffered a right hamstring strain at the end of Houston’s Game 5 victory on Thursday, which put a damper on their win to take a 3-2 series lead.
On Friday, the team announced Paul will be out for Game 6 at Oracle Arena and re-evaluated after the Rockets return to Houston.
“It’s obviously not something we wanted,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I hate it for him above all. He’s practically won us the past two games. But it’s a great opportunity for other guys, and we have plenty to choose from. We’ll be ready.”
D’Antoni didn’t provide much optimism for Paul returning for a potential Game 7 either, saying “I don’t know.”
The Rockets now have no choice but to face the fact they’ll be without one of their stars as they head into a hostile environment in the Bay, where the Warriors had, up until Game 4, won an NBA-record 16 straight in the playoffs.
Houston’s record with Paul this season is 61-12, while they’re just 15-9 without him in the lineup.
Eric Gordon, who likely will start for the Rockets with Paul out, averaged 21.5 points, 3.4 assists in 30 games as a starter while filling in for Paul and Harden this season.— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) May 25, 2018
The point guard has been critical in the Rockets’ past two wins, providing timely shot-making while James Harden has been off the mark.
The stats actually suggest Houston have been better in this series without Paul, with the team fielding a net rating of plus-1.5 points in his 56 minutes on the bench, compared to a net rating of minus-8.4 in his 184 minutes on the floor.
Diving deeper, when both Harden and Paul have been on the court – 136 minutes – the Rockets have a point differential of minus-12. With just Paul on the court, it’s minus-eight in 47 minutes. And with only Harden, it’s plus-11 in 47 minutes.
While those stats feel somewhat hollow considering Paul’s heroics the past two games, they do suggest Houston can survive in his absence, but likely only if Harden breaks out of his slump.
The struggling Luc Mbah a Moute is also expected to be reinserted into the rotation.
The Houston Rockets are one win from the NBA Finals, which means the Golden State Warriors are on the brink of their first elimination in the Kevin Durant era and just their second in the past four seasons.
Let that sink in for a moment. Golden State, who have looked downright unbeatable since the moment they added Durant in the summer of 2016, have their backs against the wall and need to win the next two games of the Western Conference Finals – including one on the road – to keep their run going.
This iteration of the Warriors hasn’t come close to facing a situation like this before. They’ve lost three times in this series to the Rockets after suffering three defeats in total in their past six playoff series.
Houston have managed to take Golden State out of their comfort zone, but much of what has ailed the defending champions has been self-inflicted.
Here are takeaways from Game 5 and what they mean as the series shifts back to the Bay, where the Warriors will be fighting for their lives.
Golden State’s offence out of sorts
There’s a lot to parse on the side of the ball featuring Golden State’s offence and Houston’s defence.
It would be easy to equate the Warriors’ struggles in scoring and scoring efficiently in this series to their own mistakes and insistence on playing isolation ball with Durant. That has certainly played a major factor, with Golden State too content to dump the ball to Durant in the mid-post and let him attack one-on-one.
It would be the best method of attack for practically every other team in the league, but not for a Warriors juggernaut which has three of the greatest shooters in history and an abundance of options stemming from fluid ball movement. It’s not a coincidence Golden State’s best performance in this series came in the game Stephen Curry went off for 35 points as the team regained its identity.
The Warriors are not moving the ball as much in the Conference Finals.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 25, 2018
They are averaging 78 fewer passes per game than last round and 59 fewer than the regular season per @SecondSpectrum. pic.twitter.com/NbSSMx3KhI
But this isn’t a one-way street – the Rockets have had a say in Golden State’s issues. The ball pressure in Game 5 was often suffocating and left the Warriors reeling as the shot clock was winding down.
The importance of Andre Iguodala’s absence was on full display as Golden State immensely missed his playmaking and table-setting. As great as Iguodala is though, you can’t be that reliant on a role player when you have two MVPs and two All-Stars on the roster. Still, if Iguodala recovers from his knee injury enough to return for Game 6, it could swing the series back in Golden State’s favour.
Warriors waste Houston’s ice-cold shooting
Golden State should be concerned they couldn’t win on a night the Rockets shot a putrid 37.2 per cent from the field and just 13-of-43 from long range.
That 13-of-43 mark was also what Houston shot on uncontested field goals as they missed open look after open look to keep the Warriors in the game.
It would be an understatement to say James Harden is cold as ice right now. He went 5-of-21 in Game 5 and 0-of-11 from 3, meaning he’s now missed 20 straight triples – the longest streak of his career.
Many of those have been of the step-back variety, but while they might not be ideal shots, Harden’s MVP campaign was largely built on nailing those daggers.
Harden can’t possibly shoot any worse going forward, so it’s possible the Warriors missed their opening to make him and the Rockets pay.
Time for some humility
The Warriors have never lacked for confidence. If anything, it’s bordered on – if not totally crossed into – arrogance.
And you can’t blame them. They were nearly unbeatable before Durant jumped on board and have been infallible since, often exuding a laissez-faire attitude in the regular season when the stakes are minimal.
Even now, with the Warriors on the brink of elimination, they sound as confident as ever.
“I feel great about where we are right now,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said.
Their self-belief is both admirable and essential, but the time has also come to stop messing around and take things seriously.
It never seems like the Warriors have much respect for their opponents and that’s especially been the vibe against Houston, who should have commanded their attention after being the best team in the league this season.
The Rockets should definitely have their attention now. Golden State’s margin for error and casualness is long gone.