The teams have traded blows throughout the Western Conference Finals and Golden State have already managed a win on Houston’s floor (Game 1), so while the Rockets will benefit from home-court advantage, several other factors will be at play.
Here’s a breakdown of adjustments and areas to watch for both teams heading into the most important game of their season.
Move the ball
It sounds obvious, but Golden State have to start Game 7 with the same offensive approach they had to close Game 6. That means less Kevin Durant isolations and post-ups, and more of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson cutting and coming off screens.
But the Warriors should liberally use their three offensive stalwarts in on-ball actions as well, with various pick-and-roll combinations, especially with Thompson as the screen-setter. The sharpshooter has been deadly in those spots in this series, often slipping early for a spot-up look. It’s challenged Houston’s switch-everything scheme, catching them off guard with the timing.
The addition of the Klay Thompson pick-and-pop set the last two games pic.twitter.com/Ls0BIvTyfI— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) May 27, 2018
The Rockets were impressive in the first quarter of Game 6 when they built up a 17-point lead, but they were helped by Golden State mistakes. Specifically, the Warriors struggled to pick-up Houston’s shooters in transition – not just on fast-breaks, but off makes as well – and didn’t apply much ball pressure in the half-court.
Especially with Chris Paul out, the Rockets want to get up as many 3s as possible, so players like Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza aren’t going to be shy in launching right off the catch, whether there is a defender nearby or not. The Warriors have to make it harder on Houston by taking away many of those looks and forcing them to put the ball on the floor.
Houston are averaging 19 turnovers in their three losses in the series, which have resulted in 22.7 points per game for Golden State.
Some of these turnovers have been the kind you expect against a formidable defence, like strips and shot-clock violations. But a lot have been inexplicable, such as errant passes and mental lapses. The Rockets have to clean that up and take care of the ball, otherwise they’ll give Golden State’s offence even more ammo in transition.
Play through others for stretches
As counter-intuitive as it may seem, Houston may fare better by relying a little less on Harden with Paul likely out again.
The reason? The Rockets are basically playing a six-and-half-man rotation, with Luc Mbah a Moute getting fringe minutes. Coach Mike D’Antoni doesn’t have any other players he trusts, so there will be a large burden on Houston’s regulars, including Harden obviously.
But pushing too hard on the pedal with Harden early could wear him out by the end of the game. Gordon has to get more of the shot-creating responsibility as a ball-handler to keep Harden fresher. It will be a delicate balance for D’Antoni, but it’s not untenable if managed better.
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.