Way Out West- Conference Finals 5.17.18

Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors

Series Tied: 1-1

Raise your hand if you thought James Harden would be the top scorer in game one. Safe bet, sure. His forty led all scorers. Now raise your hand if you thought that Harden would sit and take a rest in the third quarter of game one, as Golden State stretched its lead to eleven points. It’s common knowledge that the Warriors put teams away in the third quarter. Why on earth Houston coach Mike D’Antoni would have his primary scoring option on the bench as the Warriors started to pull away is anyone’s guess. Mine is that he knew his best and only option to compete with Golden State was spent. Better to try again in game two than let Harden shatter himself to put up fifty in a losing effort.

The Rockets had gone into halftime with the game tied on the back of Harden’s solo efforts, but it had clearly worn away at his resolve, as the Warriors started scoring in bunches early in the third, as they have so many times before. It’s formulaic. It’s painful for opposing fans to watch. And it works. Golden State turns up the heat on defense, causing turnovers and creating chaos, then hits the gas on offense, whipping the ball around the floor from man to man, waiting for an open shot. Giving up good looks to create great ones. When the Warriors are in this mode, there’s always an open man. The Rockets just don’t have the personnel to match up. I don’t know that there’s a team in the association that does. Boston is probably the closest right now. Golden State light, if you will.

It’s not just that Kevin Durant was able to stay with Harden’s heavy output by putting up thirty-seven of his own. It’s that Houston didn’t seem to have a scheme to help their role players contribute like Golden State does. The Rockets mostly stood idly by, watching Harden, or Chris Paul go to work on over forty isolation plays. Are the isolations successful? Generally, but they also run down the shot clock and allow Golden State’s defenders to rest up and spy to help against Harden. It’s not a recipe for success.

Game two would become must-win territory for the top-seeded Rockets, and they responded with an evolved game plan. Harden and Paul spread the ball around far more than the previous contest, leading to unsung hero Eric Gordon’s six for nine shooting from beyond the arc. In fact, Gordon’s twenty-seven points left him tied with Harden at the games’ end. It wasn’t so much a win by the Rocket’s as a walk over, as they dominated Golden State in every facet of the game. Klay Thompson was ice cold by his lofty standards, tallying only eight points. Steph Curry recorded less than twenty points for the first time since his return from injury. Draymond Green was toned down and less than effective, scoring only six points to go with six rebounds and six assists, far from his usual nightly average of nearly a triple-double. Only Kevin Durant looked like himself, carrying his team with thirty-eight points in the losing effort.

It’s strange. I predicted the Warriors would take the series in six games, and prepared for a series loaded with tension and close games. Instead, we’ve witnessed two straight blowouts. I’m sticking with my prediction, but it looks like we might instead see more dramatic ebbs and flows of momentum. How Golden State defends the Rockets in game three will be interesting. It seems that they were unprepared for a less selfish game plan. It won’t happen twice. I’m also keen to see if Gordon can duplicate his game two surge for the Rockets. If he continues to be white-hot, the Warriors will have a much bigger challenge on their hands. These Rockets have prepared and obsessed about beating the Warriors all season. It’s the reason that they were brought together. They’ll need three more performances like last night to keep the reigning champions from heading back to the Finals.

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