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.
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