Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors was intense. In a game that was easily the best of the conference finals, and possibly the entire playoffs, the Houston Rockets pulled off a nerve-racking win in Oracle Arena, tying the series up at 2–2.
The Rockets weathered several different Golden State runs and big quarters through strong defense and big quarters of their own. Golden State won the first and third quarters, as per usual, but instead of folding like Games 1 & 3, the Rockets rallied back. Houston took the second quarter 34–18 by virtue of a late run that was sparked by defense from an unlikely source.
On back-to-back possessions, James Harden, he of the Shaun Livingston no-look defense meme, stole two separate passes that both lead to easy layups and dunks. As time expired in the second quarter, Harden blocked a short Steph Curry shot. The block capped off of 12–3 run by the Rockets to finish the half. That short, explosive run put the Rockets up 53–46 heading into the half and was reminiscent of the Golden State Warriors themselves.
In Games 1 & 3, both Warriors’ wins, Golden State squeezed out leads at the half off of short, quick bursts of points. The usual spark was a bad James Harden pass or stellar defensive play by Draymond Green. The Warriors lacked a strong defensive presence in Game 4, only 6 steals and 3 blocks. On the other side, James Harden lead the way with 3 steals and 2 blocks as the Rockets posted 7 total steals and 9 blocks. The Warriors were forced into 16 team turnovers to the Rockets’ 10. The Rockets also cut down on unforced errors; they only had two shot clock violations in Game 4 as opposed to the previous losses where those unforced errors were a huge part of their unraveling.
One other statistic that stands out post-game, for both teams, is their assist number. Game 4 was the lowest scoring of the series by far, but the Warriors posted a mere 14 assists, well below their season average of 29.3. The Rockets had even fewer assists, with just 12, a number that was also lower than their season average of 21.6.
Those assist numbers are emblematic of the offensive styles Golden State and Houston run, and of Houston’s path to victory in this series.
Golden State has 3 of the best shooters in NBA history and one of the best and most willing facilitators in the league. The Warriors shoot lots of 3-pointers and they make lots of 3-pointers (39% from 3, #1 in the NBA). Their free-wheeling, movement, and passing based offense is almost unguardable and their personnel almost guarantees them a good shot every possession.
The Rockets shoot even more 3s and make a lot of them, even setting an NBA record for most 3-pointers made in a season (1256), taking the old record from the 2016–2017 Houston Rockets. The combination of James Harden, Chris Paul, and Mike D’Antoni has lead to the iso-heavy approach the Rockets favor. Harden and Paul are almost like two battering rams, breaking their way through the opposing defense until it splinters, either giving them a layup or corner three-pointer, D’Antoni’s favorite shots.
Both teams have historic offenses and they finished the season separated by 0.1 points per game (Warriors #1, Rockets #2). If Houston had made just one more regular season basket, they would have been the highest-scoring offense in the league. As it ended though, the two are almost equally high-powered and matched.
Except the Rockets won’t win this series if they play Golden State’s style of basketball. And Golden State won’t win this series if they try to play Houston’s style. That is what we saw come to fruition in Game 4.
Houston has the personnel to try out Golden State’s style, but anything they play will come from Harden and Paul set up in iso, then driving and kicking out to open shooters. Golden State’s offense can be initiated from 4 different players, 5 if Andre Iguodala is healthy. That’s why Golden State is nearly unguardable.
Unless Houston can force them into fighting fire with fire, or in this case iso-baskets with iso-baskets. Allowing Kevin Durant access into the post and giving him the opportunity to go one-on-one is dangerous. Doing that invites a 50-burger and the potential for embarrassment by one of the greatest players in the league. Except that we’ve never really seen Durant transform into the kind of player that will rip a team to shreds in iso just because we can. That’s the switch that LeBron flipped against the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
When Durant is cooking, he stops the ball. That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. Every great scorer and superstar does that. In one sense, superstars transcend the system they play in. In Golden State, however, the system is what has created a superpower. Putting the ball in Durant’s hand and letting him post-up gets the Warriors buckets, with almost laughable ease, but it doesn’t really involve Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. As a Rockets fan, that makes me happy. Steph and Klay are assassins from the perimeter and if they get hot and involved, it gets really, really, really hard to stop Golden State.
In Game 5, and the rest of the series, whichever team can force the other into playing its style of basketball is going to win. For the Rockets, since they are so reliant on two guys in Harden and Paul, what their rotation players can give them is crucial.
However, Coach D’Antoni only play six and a half players in Game 4. PJ Tucker played 44 minutes, Harden played 43, Paul played 42, Trevor Ariza played 41, Eric Gordon played 35, Clint Capela played 24, and Gerald Green saw 12 minutes (about half a player). Such heavy minutes may not be sustainable for the remainder of the series. The problem is that the Rockets don’t have anyone else that they really trust outside of those 7. Luc Mbah a Moute was specifically brought in for this series, but seemingly can’t make a dunk or layup anymore. Ryan Anderson has been hurt and playing Nene is a defensive crime.
Eric Gordon and Gerald Green need to provide something tangible off the bench. Green was actually something close to a defensive stopper with two blocks in Game 4 and is always ready to pull the trigger from three. His energy is a boost to the other 4 guys on the court and so is his irrational shooting confidence, but a bad three is a price worth paying to re-energize the team. Gordon though has had a tough tim in the playoffs so far. He’s only shooting 33% from 3 and his scoring is down to 14 points per game in the playoffs, far below his regular season averages of 36% and 18 ppg.
Hopefully, the combo of Gordon and Green off the bench provides the Rockets with enough of a spark to stay afloat on offense if Harden or Paul sits. They need that offensive firepower to force Golden State into what they are uncomfortable doing.