After being left for dead following their series-opening loss to the Golden State Warriors on their home floor, the Houston Rockets responded by striking back in Game 2 to even the Western Conference Finals.
The Warriors remain in an enviable position having already stolen home-court as the series now shifts to Oakland, but the 127-105 victory by the Rockets was a promising first step to making this a competitive match-up.
Here are takeaways from Game 2.
More of the same, just done better
Houston’s offence was much more efficient – obviously, they scored 127 points – but it wasn’t because they changed up their approach and decided to abandon isolation basketball.
While they were undoubtedly more fluid and used crisp ball movement to catch the Warriors’ defence leaning on several possessions, attacking one-on-one remained their bread and butter.
Ha, Houston had 33 logged plays that were isolation or passes out of isolation for shots or turnovers in Game 2. That’s the exact same amount as Game 1. they scored slightly less efficiently but still great at 1.152 points per possession.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 17, 2018
Paul scored 16 points on 6-of-14 shooting, but it was Gordon who truly made the difference as he dropped 27 on 8-of-15 from the field, including 6-of-9 from deep.
P.J. Tucker also stepped up and took advantage of his spot-up chances, hitting 8-of-9 overall and 5-of-6 from long range for 22 points.
The Rockets went from 9 points on 18 spot-up possessions in Game 1 to 39 points (!) on 20 possessions in Game 2.— Hardwood Paroxysm (@HPbasketball) May 17, 2018
Aesthetically, the offence looked more spread out and predicated on passing rather than dribbling, but the numbers aren’t reflective of that. Houston’s assist percentage was slightly higher than Game 1 – 46.2 per cent to 51.1 – but they only made two more total passes – 226 to 228.
If anything, the Rockets should be encouraged that they didn’t have to change up what worked for them all season and do something entirely different. They won playing their style and that should give them confidence heading into Game 3.
Death Lineup doesn’t come alive
Warriors coach Steve Kerr started his ‘Death Lineup’ for the fourth straight game and used it more than he has at any point in the playoffs, keeping them on the floor 21.3 minutes.
Heading into Game 2, that lineup had outscored teams by 56 points in 71 minutes while boasting an offensive rating of 126.4 points and a defensive mark of 92.0 for a net rating of 34.4.
In Game 2, however, the Hamptons Five finished with a net rating of minus-35.9 and were outscored by 18 points.
Considering how dominant that lineup has been over the years, it’s shocking to see them produce those kind of putrid numbers. But it’s likely their performance was an aberration and will positively regress to the mean going forward.
Still, it may be all the justification Kerr needs to trot out a more traditional lineup with a conventional centre for more minutes.
Curry is quiet again
Is it time to start worrying about Stephen Curry and, more specifically, his health?
For the second straight game, the Warriors guard was held in check to the tune of the 16 points on 7-of-19 shooting, including just 1-of-8 on 3-pointers.
Stephen Curry finished 1-8 on 3-pt FG after going 1-5 in Game 1.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 17, 2018
This is the 1st time in his career he's made 1 or fewer 3-pointers in consecutive playoff games
Afterward, both Curry and Kerr shook off any suggestions that he’s still dealing with lingering effects from a knee sprain that sidelined him for nearly all of March and April.
Curry’s numbers were fairly efficient in the second round, but his explosion and lift don’t appear to be back to 100 per cent.
There’s also some concern in how Golden State are using him on offence, which has seen the two-time MVP turn into more of a secondary option as Kevin Durant has been far and away the primary shot creator.
Houston’s defence and their aggressiveness in attacking Curry on the other end of the floor could also be reasons for why he’s looked unlike himself.
Regardless, if Curry doesn’t bounce back soon, this series – and the NBA Finals if Golden State advance – could be a lot closer than anticipated after Game 1.
On a night Stephen Curry wasn’t raining down his usual fire and Houston Rockets guard James Harden was practically unstoppable, Durant was the focal point for a Warriors offence that had no problem letting their star forward cook in one-on-one situations.
And cook Durant did, scoring 37 points on 14-of-27 shooting to lead Golden State to a 119-106 victory over the Rockets on the road.
Like Harden, who finished with a game-high 41 points and produced 1.67 points per play in 15 isolations, Durant was also dominant in isos, scoring 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Kevin Durant scored 27 of his 37 points on isolation plays and was one of the few players for Golden State to be effective in the 1-on-1 game pic.twitter.com/UEZcYQLf1R— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 15, 2018
The difference between the two teams, however, is their reliance on isolations. Whereas the Rockets’ main weapon is Harden and Chris Paul attacking one-on-one, the Warriors wield that approach with Durant as a secondary option.
“We want to keep the ball moving, but obviously Kevin is the ultimate luxury because a play can break down and you just throw him the ball,” coach Steve Kerr said. “He can get you a bucket as well as anybody on Earth. This is why anybody would want him on their team.
“You think about a couple years ago, and we’re in the Finals and we couldn’t quite get over the hump. Kevin is the guy that puts you over the hump. I don’t know what you do to guard him. He can get any shot he wants.”
On most other teams, Durant would likely be used heavily in one-on-one situations, but with how fluid and talented Golden State’s offence is, they have choices aplenty for ways to score.
Which is why Houston coach Mike D’Antoni will live with Durant taking what is normally considered a low-efficiency shot, while trying to take away open looks for the Warriors shooters.
“He is 7 feet and falling away. He’s one of the best scorers ever, right? So I thought he was extremely good. But we can withstand that,” D’Antoni said of Durant.
“We can’t withstand turning the ball over, missing layups, them getting out. Klay Thompson got up 15 [3-pointers]. We can’t give him 15 3s. We’re switching everything and staying off for that reason, so we have to clean up some stuff and see if we can do it on Wednesday.”
A scary notion for the Rockets, however, is that Golden State can potentially be even better.
Curry was limited to 18 points on 1-of-5 shooting from deep, while they now have three of the next five games (if needed) at home.
“I don’t know if we’re at our peak,” Durant said. “I think we could be better. I mean, the stakes are high. We’re playing the Western Conference finals against the best team in the league, the No1 seed, an MVP on their team. So I think everybody just wants to enjoy this time. Not a lot of people get this opportunity, so we want to take advantage of it.”
It was only one game, but the series opener of the Western Conference Finals was a reminder of just how uphill a climb it takes to beat the Golden State Warriors.
It’s obviously too early to say with any conviction this series is already over, but it sure feels like the outcome is inevitable.
We spent the regular season and first two rounds of the playoffs being impressed with a 65-win Houston Rockets squad which boasted the MVP frontrunner, one of the best point guards in history, a historically-good offence and home-court advantage.
And yet, the collective worth of all those advantages appeared to turn to dust with a Thanos-like snap of the fingers by the Warriors in Game 1.
Consider everything which went in the Rockets’ favour: James Harden was arguably the best player on the floor and turned in a terrific 41-point showing, Stephen Curry was kept relatively quiet with 18 points and one 3-pointer, and again, Houston were on their home floor.
None of it seemed to matter as the Warriors won by 13. Not by a few possessions. By 13.
This is just the 6th game the Rockets have lost this season in which James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela all played (were 50-5 entering Game 1)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 15, 2018
It was a close game throughout the first half when the teams were trading punches, but after the intermission, Golden State went to another level the Rockets probably aren’t capable of. That’s less an indictment of Houston and more telling of how much of a juggernaut the Warriors are.
The Rockets’ margin of error is just too minuscule. Even though they have two of the best creators in basketball and thrived with Harden and Chris Paul attacking in isolations all season, that method of attack can only get them so far against the long and versatile defenders of Golden State.
Attacking primarily through isolation may be enough if Houston can turn this series from a shootout to a grind-it-out affair. But that would involve slowing down the Warriors’ offence, which the Rockets did little of in Game 1.
Part of that was Kevin Durant being Kevin Durant and hitting shots Houston have no choice but to live with, but the Rockets also too often got caught matching-up in transition and left Klay Thompson wide open for easy triples.
Add in 13 turnovers leading to 17 Golden State points and 11 misses in the restricted area, and the combination left Houston with too much to overcome.
Against any other team, the Rockets’ Game 1 performance would have been enough. The Warriors aren’t just any team though.