Devastation in Houston as Warriors beat Rockets

The Golden State Warriors beat the Houston Rockets in Game 6, close out the series in Houston

As the clock was winding down Saturday night and the Golden State Warriors were wrapping up their 118-113 victory against the Houston Rockets, an ESPN broadcaster brought up the question likely haunting James Harden and co. today. If you’re the Rockets, he mused, you have to be wondering if you’re ever going to beat this basketball team.

Right now, it certainly doesn’t feel like they will.

The Rockets were heavily favored to win this game. They were at home in a do-or-die situation, and Kevin Durant – who had been having a massive postseason – was sitting at home nursing a calf injury.

Everyone was looking at what Steph Curry would do in Durant’s absence. He was due for an explosion anyway, and they’d need it without Durant’s scoring. The Rockets anticipated that, and seemed to adopt a make-anyone-but-Curry-beat-us mentality as a counter. They aggressively trapped on every Curry pick and roll, and continuously attacked him on the other end. The result was foul trouble, wide-open floater and layup misses, and the 2nd scoreless playoff half of his career.

Klay Thompson came up big, as he has throughout his career in games like this. With Curry sitting large stretches and Durant out, they needed all 21 of his first-half points. They also needed that surprise performance from the bench guys, who outscored Houston’s 20-12 in the half. Shaun Livingston is having a bad year and a bad playoff season, but he chipped in an efficient 11 points on the night. Kevon Looney scored 14, and his 4 offensive rebounds were killer (he also blocked a Gerald Green attempt from long-range with under a minute left – that might have saved the game). Andrew Bogut being a +3 in his 11:35 was huge. He’s not what he used to be defensively, but his institutional knowledge and passing ability open up a lot for Golden State.

That the game was tied going into the 2nd half was a bad sign for Houston. Not taking advantage of that quiet first half from Curry made his 33-point second-half explosion hurt even more. He was brilliant, sinking floaters that rattled out in the first half and drilling four threes, including a fadeaway over P.J. Tucker late in the fourth quarter that felt like the dagger.

It’s hard to fault Houston’s gameplan. They trapped Curry early and often, but he still exploded. There were plays where his defender (often Chris Paul) fell asleep and allowed him a look, but we’re talking about inches here. Unless your name is Kawhi Leonard, you probably don’t play defense with constant robot-like focus. You’re going to have minor little lapses, and the Warriors make their money taking advantage of those.

That trapping scheme led to more long-range opportunities for the rest of the team, but they usually executed it so it was Iguodala with the open look. He went 5-8 from deep, but if you’re the Rockets, you just have no choice but to live with that. Either you concede there or you give Klay (who finished 7 of 13 from deep) open looks.

Harden has been better (it stings that his 5 missed free throws were the difference in the game), but he got you a fairly efficient 35 points. Interestingly, the Warriors didn’t bring the double late in the shot clock like they did earlier in the series. They just had Klay Thompson on him, sitting on his left hip, and diligently forced him to his floater (thereby denying the lob – Clint Capela finished with 10 points on 11 shot attempts, many of them traditional post-ups).

Chris Paul had his best game of the postseason by far, dropping a 27-11-6 statline and piloting the offense in important stretches. The Rockets have 4 guys (Harden, Paul, Eric Gordon, and Austin Rivers) who competently attack off the dribble, and all four took advantage of mismatches when they were present. There was a lot of screening to try to get Harden mismatches, but there was also a lot of “hey, who’s got Shaun Livingston or Bogut on them, here, you have the ball.” All 4 had impactful nights (though getting more out of Gordon would have helped). And Harden drained big shots down the stretch.

How do you get mad at Houston here? They could have had a more efficient night, they could have denied offensive rebounds better, and they could have had fewer turnovers, but they largely did what they were supposed to do. But when Curry and Thompson are taking turns hitting daggers, it’s a very hard game to win.

And yet this stings even more because it felt like their best chance. Durant was out. Curry and Draymond had two first-quarter fouls, forcing Golden State at one point to resort to a Thompson-Bell-McKinnie-Looney-Cook lineup. It’s surprising some of those guys got any meaningful minutes at all, let alone together, but that’s the boat the Warriors were in. And the Rockets didn’t take advantage of it.

This is the 2nd season in a row where Houston lost a long, tough series to Golden State. This Rockets team was built specifically to counter the Warriors. They empowered Harden to be a star, gambled on Chris Paul (and it’s largely paid off so far), made intelligent moves at the margin. Their GM and coach are among the smartest in the business. They have done almost everything right.

And once again, they’re getting dispatched by the Warriors. Again, after a series that felt winnable but at the same time reinforced that the gap between the two teams is very real. James Harden is 29-years-old and Chris Paul is 34, on a team where significant upgrades are going to be difficult to come by. For those two future hall-of-famers, that question broached as hope was slipping away – if you’re ever going to beat this basketball team – is going to be the thing ringing in their ears all off-season long.

The Rockets are a great basketball team, and should continue to be great. They’ve accomplished so much, and deserve praise for playing at such a high level for years. They’ve pushed perhaps the greatest team of all time more than any team without LeBron James. Their offense has been historically elite. Paul and Harden – and D’Antoni and Morey – will go down as all-time greats. But for all their ingenuity and dedication, they’re running up against what feels like an immovable object. To go down as this generation’s Stockton and Malone would not be a failure, but the miserable looks on the Rockets’ faces at the post-game press conference said it all. They desperately want to win.

For the second season in a row, you wonder if the Rockets just saw their best chance go by.

You wonder if Houston’s window just closed.

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