The Warriors used a bevy of Kevin Durant buckets (37 points), “butt naked” open threes from Klay Thompson (6-of-15 from three), and a “punch yourself out” defense to burn the Rockets in Game 1. Home court advantage was lost, and desperation was in the air for the league’s best regular season team.
The Rockets responded with an emphatic 127-105 victory on Wednesday night. James Harden (27 points, 10 rebounds) balled out once again while Chris Paul (16 points, six assists) gritted his way through some sort of leg tweak. It was the “others” that really stood out, however.
Eric Gordon, the human pinball, bullied and bombed his way into a 27-point masterpiece off the bench. PJ Tucker (22-7-4 on 8-of-9 shooting) made up for a scoreless Game 1. Trevor Ariza (19 points, six assists) kept the chain moving offensively while playing stellar defense on the other end.
Shortly after the Game 2 buzzer sounded, the focus shifted from the on-court broadcast to the Inside The NBA crew. In the midst of Charles Barkley’s analysis, he actually said something interesting. I’m going to paraphrase what he said, because finding the full direct quote would require me to look for and listen to his NBA coverage on purpose. I do not like to do this for several, obvious reasons.
You know what happened tonight? The Rockets played like the Warriors.
In a way, he was right. Houston’s 122.3 offensive rating and three-point barrage (16-of-42, 38.1 percent) wasn’t a surprise to anyone that’s followed this team, but the pace (102.28) was. There was a little more activity off the ball, and decisiveness with it. This sequence in the second quarter had “Warriors” written all over it.
This is beautiful basketball and for people who complain about the way the Houston Rockets play. pic.twitter.com/GOYRATE1M8
— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) May 17, 2018
But … that’s really where the comparisons end. Via tracking data at Inpredictable, the Rockets averaged 15.1 seconds per possession before a shot attempt or turnover in Game 2.
Their Game 1 mark? 15 seconds flat.
Their overall playoff average? 15.2 seconds.
Houston had more body movement, but the ball movement didn’t change much. After making 226 passes in Game 1, the Rockets made 228 passes in Game 2.
If anyone shifted their play style, it was the Warriors.
Their usual free-flowing offense has been replaced by an iso-heavy machine. After averaging a very nice 6.9 isolation possessions per game during the regular season, that number has shot up to 25.5 through two games in the Western Conference Finals.
Normally, the Warriors torch defenses with an array of pindowns and flex cuts. Any blip of miscommunication leads to wide open looks at the rim or behind the arc. It’s why the Dubs led the NBA — by far — in points off of screens or cuts. With the Rockets switching everything, those breakdowns haven’t been there as often.
Nobody has been affected by that more than Stephen Curry. His series averages (17.0 points with a 44/15/67 shooting split) are well below his regular season marks. He hasn’t been able to establish any sort of a rhythm in this series.
The Rockets have made a concerted effort to make sure Curry doesn’t see a sliver of daylight from beyond the arc, on or off the ball. Curry has had success finishing at the rim, but he’s had to work his butt off to get there.
It also doesn’t help that the Rockets have targeted Curry every other possession on the other end. No matter where the Warriors have tried to hide him, Harden has forced a switch in an effort to put Curry in the blender.
(How much Curry’s knee may or may not be affecting him is up to your discretion — I’m not going down that rabbit hole again.)
Further complicating matters is the usage of Kevin Durant. He has been absurd, averaging 37.5 points on a 55/46/100 shooting split in the series. He has been especially prolific in the mid-range area.
Durant is schooling just about anyone that’s attempted to guard him. PJ Tucker, James Harden, and Chris Paul have been buried under a sea of turnaround jimmies. Trevor Ariza is the only player who hasn’t been burned to a crisp.
Durant has been playing H.O.R.S.E at an efficient clip, carrying Curry’s workload as he tries to find himself. That’s mostly fine in a vacuum, but the iso-centric nature of Durant’s game is playing right into Houston’s hands.
Durant putting a defender on his hip and sprinkling Kobe shots over their helpless arms is fun to watch. It also leads to a little bit of stagnation. The ball hasn’t been moving as much, partly because of Durant’s shot selection.
Warriors averaged 323 passes & 29 assists per game during regular season. Warriors in West Finals vs Rockets:
-Game 1: 283 passes, 24 assists
-Game 2: 272 passes, 21 assists
(D'Antoni said: "They walked it up tonight and they did a lot of isos. Switching causes you to do that.")
— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) May 17, 2018
Is it fair to blame Durant, though? Not entirely. The Warriors aren’t THE WARRIORS when they play through Durant like this, but Durant is also the biggest reason this series is tied up.
With Curry out of rhythm and Thompson being held in check in Game 2, Durant has been the only consistent source of offense for Golden State. Taking the ball out of his hands while he has it going doesn’t sound like a great plan, especially when Houston is humming the way they were in Game 2.
Ultimately, middle ground will need to be found. The Warriors have to get Curry going with on-ball touches. Using him as the world’s deadliest decoy can only take you so far. This doesn’t mean going away from Durant — that would be dumb — but the hierarchy must change.
Curry has still shown the ability to get busy in pick-and-roll when he gets the chance. The threat of his shooting still strikes fear into the eyes of opponents, and he leverages that to get downhill. Watch how he abuses this botched switch by Houston.
The Warriors stole homecourt, but that won’t matter much if they don’t get Curry rolling over the next couple of games. Golden State can be great with an off Curry, but they won’t be unbeatable. Game 2 showed us that.