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.
The Cleveland Cavaliers remaining maddening and wildly inconsistent on a night-to-night basis.
After seemingly getting their act together at home during the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavaliers returned to looking hapless in the 96-83 loss to the Boston Celtics in Game 5.
Here are player grades for Cleveland.
LeBron James – B
For anyone else, this would have been a great game. But LeBron isn’t just anyone and by his standard, Game 5 was okay. On a night when his team-mates flat out didn’t show up to offer much help, James needed to go supernova, but he couldn’t pull that type of effort out. He looked gassed at times and didn’t exhibit the same hustle in transition and defence that he did in Game 3 and 4 at home. He was also sloppy with the ball again, losing six turnovers. Maybe he was saving something in the tank for when he and the Cavaliers really need it and are facing elimination.
Larry Nance Jr – B
It’s not a promising sign when you’re second-best player in a game is someone who was on the floor for just 17 minutes. Credit to Nance though, he brought energy on the boards and defensively, coming up with six rebounds and four blocks – much of which came after he got into a scuffle with Marcus Morris. Simply put, Nance looked like he wanted to (figuratively) fight in this game, whereas most of his teammates didn’t seem as interested.
Kevin Love – C+
After making his first two 3-pointers at the start, Love wasn’t much of an offensive factor for the rest of the game. LeBron is in dire need of someone to step up and be a competent sidekick to help shoulder the offensive burden, so 14 points is not going to get it done by Love.
Kyle Korver – C+
Through no fault of his own, Korver didn’t see the floor much in Game 5 – something coach Tyronn Lue weirdly put down to Boston not playing Semi Ojeleye, who was supposed to be Korver’s match-up. In the 19 minutes he did play, the sharpshooter did his usual thing offensively, although he left a few clean looks on the table. Defensively, he continued to hold his own, especially against Jaylen Brown.
Jeff Green – C
For once, Green wasn’t a huge a minus. In fact, he provided a little bit of offence, scoring eight points on 3-of-4 from the field. Cleveland have no choice but to play him because he’s one of their only serviceable wings, but Green can also do better.
Tristan Thompson – C-
He was mostly a non-factor in his 26 minutes as he failed to impact the game like he did back in Cleveland. Part of that may have been due to Aron Baynes being in starting lineup to counteract Thompson’s presence on the glass, but the Cleveland forward didn’t even limit Al Horford on the other end as well as he had been.
Jordan Clarkson – C-
Clarkson started off well by hitting a couple 3s, but couldn’t buy a bucket after that, especially in the fourth quarter when he had a couple looks that would have closed the gap.
George Hill – D+
The Cavaliers’ backcourt was nothing short of horrendous in Game 5, with both Hill and J.R. Smith providing very little. Hill at least got to the free throw line for his seven points, but didn’t attack in the same way he did in Cleveland. The Cavaliers won’t win this series unless Hill puts pressure on Boston’s defence.
J.R. Smith – D
It’s hard to be as bad as Smith was in Game 5. In 26 minutes, he had two points, one assist, one turnover and no rebounds, steals or blocks. He clanked all four his 3s and was generally a zero on offence. And as much as he tried on defence, he was burned constantly by Jayson Tatum.
Boston didn’t shoot all that well (36.5 per cent) and had stretches of stagnant offence, but they played like the more desperate team and came out with energy on their home floor.
Here are player grades for the Celtics.
Jayson Tatum – A
Offensively, we’ve seen better from Tatum. But as far as all-around performances for his young career, this one is right at the top. He had 24 points on 7-of-15 from the field, while grabbing seven rebounds, dishing four assists, nabbing four steals and swatting two shots. He came up with timely baskets and his aggression netted him eight free throws, but he was perhaps more impressive on the defensive end, where he caused chaos as a help defender and jumped passing lanes. He was maybe the best player on the floor despite sharing the stage with LeBron James.
Al Horford – B+
Another solid outing by Horford, who had 15 points, 12 rebounds and finished with a game-high plus-minus of plus-22. He only took nine shots, but he was aggressive from the early stages as the Celtics played through him in the post. Horford could have finished with better numbers if he converted a couple of easy looks, but it was still his best performance since Game 2.
Aron Baynes – B+
Brad Stevens’ lineup change was to insert his hulking centre into the starting five and the move paid dividends. With Baynes on the court, Boston had more size for rim protection and rebounding, which helped them hold the Cavaliers to 19 first-quarter points and jump out to an early lead. And even though LeBron James got the better of him on a few one-on-one situations, they were mostly tough, contested shots that the Celtics will live it.
Marcus Smart – B
Smart didn’t have any real signature moments in the win, but his shooting was a welcomed sight as he hit 5-of-9 overall and 3-of-6 from deep. He also had four assists as his ball-handling in the pick-and-roll led to some easy baskets.
Marcus Morris – B
He was just as effective coming off the bench for the first time in the series, finishing with 13 points on 5-of-16 shooting (3-of-6 on 3s) and six rebounds. Defensively, he checked James on 46 possessions and held his own, allowing 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting. Four of those misses were from long range as he did well to offer resistance.
Jaylen Brown – C
Brown’s ability to get to the free throw line is what kept him from having a rough night, as he shot just 4-of-15 overall and 2-of-8 from beyond the arc. His aggressiveness can be a double-edged sword at times, as it was in Game 5 when many of his downhill drives ended up going into a crowd of defenders. And he still wasn’t able to take advantage of his match-up with Kyle Korver often.
Terry Rozier – D+
After hitting his first shot of the game – a 3-pointer – Rozier missed 12 in a row to go ice cold. He did make two baskets in the fourth quarter to help keep Cleveland at bay, but the Celtics were fortunate to survive a bad game by him, and that too at home.