Even if the Golden State Warriors win the next two games and advance to the NBA Finals in six, the Houston Rockets have at least proven that dethroning the defending champs is not a complete pipe dream.
(Without baiting Draymond Green into a suspension. Though Chris Paul is giving it his best effort.)
Houston rebounded from a 12-0 hole to begin the game and a 10-point deficit heading into the fourth to win 95-92 in a slow, iso-heavy slugfest.
Chris Paul was the only superstar who shot well, with 27 points on 10-for-20 shooting in 42 minutes. But it was Houston’s pressure defense that took the Warriors out of their rhythm and ultimately won the game.
Bad Rocket first quarter offense
Golden State won the first quarter 28-19, and the Rockets seemed to be on life support. They did not score for the first five minutes, and had trouble getting good looks throughout.
Individual shot-making was the only reason Houston wasn’t down more. Deliberate movement and efficient spacing was lacking in the Rockets’ first quarter offense.
Here, Harden gets the iso against Warrior big man Kevon Looney on the right wing, almost in the corner. Houston forward P.J. Tucker sets the ball-screen to get Looney onto Harden, and clears out to the far corner.
Tucker’s defender, Klay Thompson, stays put, shadowing the Harden drive. The weak spot in the Warrior defense is the near corner. If Tucker moved there instead, Thompson would have been forced to make a choice between helping or giving up a three.
Instead, Harden realizes he has nowhere to go, and passes to center Clint Capela, who promptly turns the ball over to Green.
Ideally, Houston should place the Harden isolation further up the wing or in the center of the floor. This will force Warrior defenders to make similar tough choices.
On this play and others, the Golden State defense resembled a box-and-one defense. These defensive schemes are beaten by purposeful spacing, which the Rockets will need to have moving forward.
The perfect focus required to play Golden State also wasn’t there on the defensive end for Houston in the first quarter.
Here, Kevin Durant handles the ball on the left wing as a back screen is set by Looney for Green in the right corner. Instead of switching, Gordon is drawn to the middle of the floor to help as Durant gets penetration.
Trevor Ariza must realize at this point that he is responsible for two Warriors. He slightly turns his body toward the corner as Durant is driving, before understanding that he needs to get to the left block to defend against cuts from either Green or Looney.
Knowing the personnel is important here for Ariza, as neither of those guys are shooting threats, so he can sprint to the left block. But that half-turn kills him, allowing a Green cut for a dunk.
The Rockets fought back in the second quarter with their best response, and entered halftime with a 53-46 lead. They somewhat solved their spacing issue, but offensively were mostly carried by tough shot-making from Harden and Paul.
Houston was aggressive in its ball denial, pushing the Warriors out to the half-court line and taking them out of their offensive rhythm. This has been the scheme against Golden State, and the Rockets have the athletic and versatile personnel to do it.
Here, Curry comes around the screens on the right wing to receive the pass from Shaun Livingston. Instead, Tucker pushes him all the way out and denies the pass, forcing Curry to return to the other side of the court.
Even though the Rockets broke down and allowed a layup, this physicality made the Warriors uncomfortable and impacted their shooting flow throughout.
These terrific contests without fouling were among the best all series for the Rockets, and allowed them to go on such a large run in the second.
Typical Golden State third quarter
Even though the Rockets entered the third up seven, the Warriors typically blow games wide open just after halftime.
That they did, led by an incandescent barrage of Curry threes and layups that had Golden State leading 80-70 by the end of the period.
There is not much Houston can do about these explosions. But they must maintain concentration, as it can be easy to lose it in Oracle’s atmosphere.
The Rockets dug themselves into late shot-clock possessions as in Game 1, unable to force the issue and play with purpose. Houston must begin its driving action by eight or nine seconds on the shot clock to allow time for the defense to break down.
Similarly, on the defensive end, Houston didn’t execute on a couple of possessions. Here, the ball gets swung to Green in the right corner, and Ariza rotates away from Durant to close out on Green. Ariza must stay home here and leave Green alone, but instead Durant gets by the bad Harden closeout and hits a wide open midranger.
Even when the Rockets do leave Green open at the three-point line, their job is not done. The Warriors love to just wait in this situation as their world-class shooters run around the court, trusting Green to make the right pass.
Every time they leave Green open, alarm bells must ring for the Rockets, searching for Curry darting around on the court. This did not happen here, as they allowed a clean corner three to Curry because no Rocket stayed with him after the drive.
At this point, the game (and season) felt over. Houston’s All-Star backcourt felt destined for off-season critique for its playoff failures.
But the Rockets held strong, winning an ugly fourth quarter by double-digits and equalizing the series.
Of all people, Gerald Green was able to make a defensive impact in his short three-minute stint to begin the fourth. A block on Curry and a forced turnover on Livingston helped the Rockets win those first three minutes of the fourth by five.
Quite ironically, considering the questions about his fit in the Moreyball scheme, Chris Paul and his arsenal of mid-range shots early in the fourth contributed to saving Houston’s season.
The tremendous Houston defense continued into the fourth. On this possession, Gordon denies the backdoor pass to Curry, and Harden sprints to push the Thompson cut out to half-court. Although he foolishly double-teams Draymond Green, this was the effort level that the Rockets needed to win at Oracle.
Golden State ceased their motion and didn’t properly execute their isolations off switches. Durant terribly missed two jumpers he can usually make, and the Warriors found themselves trailing.
One of the cleanest looks in the last couple minutes of the fourth quarter for either team came on a Warrior defensive breakdown here. For whatever reason, Draymond doesn’t switch as the Warriors had been all series and instead follows Chris Paul into the paint after the Gordon screen.
Gordon pops out to the three-point line and hit his only three of the game to push the lead to 94-89.
Just keep an eye on Harden on this possession soon after. You almost never see him make that kind of defensive effort.
Game 5 showdown: Things to look for
As much as Game 4 was must-win for Houston, Game 5 will be the same. It will be interesting to note if Mike D’Antoni will stick with playing only seven guys as he did in Game 4, bringing only Gordon and Gerald Green off the bench.
The Warriors hope to have Iguodala back in Houston. It would be surprising if he missed Game 5; every player in this series is banged up at this point in the season and Kerr likely made the call to rest him in this one to save him for the rest of the playoffs.
Chris Paul had his playoff moment, and the Rockets did everything we could have hoped for, turning the series into a best-of-three and retaining their home-court advantage.
I feel comfortable calling the series competitive no matter what happens next, and that’s all I really want against these dominant Warriors.
Dev Navani covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].