After watching his team cede home-court advantage to the Golden State Warriors in a stilted and stunted Game 1 performance, head coach Mike D’Antoni maintained that his Houston Rockets didn’t need to completely change things in search of a Western Conference finals-leveling win in Wednesday’s Game 2.
“We are who we are, and we’re pretty good at it,” he told reporters. “We can’t get off who we are. Just be better of who we are.”
As adjustments go, “just be better” isn’t exactly the most tactically savory button to push. But when the dudes on the bench actually put it into practice, it can be pretty damn effective.
The Rockets might not have totally overhauled their identity in two days, but they did play a different brand of basketball on Wednesday night, playing with a level of force, pace and defensive intensity that they rarely sniffed in Game 1. The result: significantly improved ball and player movement, cranked-up playmaking and more confident shooting, and absolute domination of the defending NBA champions. The Rockets rampaged to a 127-105 blowout that evened the series at one win apiece before the scene shifts to Oakland for Game 3 at Oracle Arena on Sunday night.
After scoring a game-high 41 points in Monday’s loss, MVP finalist James Harden struggled with his shot, going 9-for-24 from the floor and just 3-for-15 from 3-point range. He still managed to pour in 27 points with 10 rebounds and three assists to pace the Rockets attack … and this time, he had plenty of help.
Eric Gordon hit two 3-pointers right after checking into the game in the first quarter and never looked back, scoring 27 points (8-for-15 from the field, 6-for-9 from 3-point land) in 37 minutes off the bench. Defensive stalwart P.J. Tucker, who missed all three shots he took in Game 1, found his touch from the corners on Wednesday, drilling five of his six deep tries and eight of nine overall to score a career-playoff-high 22 points, along with seven rebounds, four assists and a steal in a commanding two-way performance:
Trevor Ariza shook off a foul-trouble-filled Game 1 to make his presence felt, too. The veteran swingman added 19 points on 7-for-9 shooting with six assists, four rebounds and two steals for the Rockets, who shot 51.1 percent from the floor as a team, made 16 of their 42 3-point tries, and flat-out outplayed the Warriors from virtually the opening tip.
Houston led for the final 39 minutes of game time, by double figures for the final 29, and by as many as 29 during a fourth-quarter barrage that forced the Warriors to yield, empty the bench and start thinking about how to get back on track after a long flight home.
Kevin Durant remained the question for which Houston has no answer, scoring a game-high 38 points on 13-for-22 shooting to carry the Warriors on Wednesday. But the rest of Golden State’s All-Star-studded roster came up damn near empty in Game 2.
With the exception of his drives against Rockets big man Clint Capela on switches, Stephen Curry struggled mightily to get anything going on offense, needing 19 shots to score 17 points and not making a 3-pointer until a minute into the fourth quarter. Klay Thompson saw those wide-open 3s he’d nailed in Game 1 dry up thanks to more attentive Houston switching and more determined transition defense; he managed just eight points on 3-for-11 shooting, his lowest scoring output in nearly four months.
Steph Curry and Klay Thompson struggled with their shots tonight. They combined for just 24 points on 30 shooting possessions, going a mere 3-of-12 from downtown. In Game 1, they had 46 points on 36 shooting possessions. (@presidual) pic.twitter.com/b9Fxv7pVUp
— The Ringer (@ringer) May 17, 2018
Draymond Green was sloppy and disjointed from the start, turning down layups and coughing the ball up, finishing with a quiet six points, six rebounds, six assists, two steals, two blocks and four turnovers in 37 minutes. The much-ballyhooed Hamptons Five lineup, the one that dominated the Cavaliers in the 2017 Finals and walloped the Pelicans last round, has been outscored by 16 points in 39 minutes over two games against Houston.
With nobody but Durant able to generate good looks and cash them in, the Warriors in Game 2 became a slowed-down, predictable, one-and-done half-court offense. And with Golden State misfiring and not busting it back in transition, Houston became the team pushing the ball down the court, running the lanes, and getting clean look after clean look, with everybody in a Rockets uniform empowered to fire at will. The effect was jarring.
Stops, IMO, are the key to everything. Stop —> pace —> defensive confusion —> easier to find open man —> more guys get shots and contribute —> higher confidence —> better effort on D —> more stops.
— Dylan Murphy (@DylanTMurphy) May 17, 2018
On the one hand, Rockets’ shooting was hot.
On the other hand … when you play faster, you play more in flow. And when you play more in flow, you think less about your shots and take them more naturally.
Someday, we’ll actually be able to quantify that effect. But it exists.
— Reggie Comma Mike Prada (@MikePradaSBN) May 17, 2018
Despite D’Antoni’s insistence that his team didn’t need to fundamentally alter the isolation-heavy approach that led to so many stagnant possessions in Game 1, the Rockets did come out in Game 2 with some different options on their offensive menu, working more off-ball activity and quicker initiation into the mix from the opening tip. After a couple of early turnovers and some sloppy play on both sides, the shift began to pay dividends for Houston, who made much more of an effort to push the ball off Golden State misses.
The hunt for early-offense opportunities in transition led to some easy buckets, including a couple of Ariza layups and a pair of quick-trigger Gordon 3s, as the Rockets nosed out in front:
A contributing factor in the Warriors’ early struggles: persistent carelessness with the ball. It’s been a problem, perhaps Golden State’s only real one, throughout Steve Kerr’s tenure, and it reared its ugly head early in Game 2. The Warriors coughed it up seven times in the opening quarter — only two fewer turnovers than they had in all of their Game 1 win — which eradicated any chance of finding a non-KD-isolation offensive rhythm, and helped stake Houston to a five-point lead after 12 minutes.
“That’s what we do,” Kerr told TNT’s David Aldridge during a between-quarters interview. “As soon as we win a game, we like to turn the ball over more.”
The Warriors tightened up from there, finishing with 15 turnovers leading to 15 Houston points for the game, but the damage was done. The Rockets, on the other hand, managed to hang onto the ball while playing a much looser and more free-flowing style than they’d featured on Monday.
A quick 9-0 run — step-back 3s by Chris Paul and Harden sandwiching an and-one layup by Clint Capela — put Houston up by 12 with 8:34 to go in the half, getting the fans in the stands at Toyota Center into the action. And after the Warriors parried with a 9-2 burst of their own to get back within two baskets, Houston answered with a thrust, highlighted by a bit of point-god brilliance from Paul in the open court — a full-speed yo-yo dribble to freeze the defense, followed by a one-handed bullet feed to set up Tucker wide open in the left corner:
Entering Wednesday, the Rockets had rolled up a record of 34-2 this season when Tucker had made at least two 3-pointers. He had three in the second quarter alone.
Playing downhill with the lead, the Rockets repeatedly feasted off Warriors misses on one end and miscommunication on the other. They got an unfocused Golden State scrambled on cross-matches and switches, and firing the ball around the perimeter to create great looks that their in-rhythm shooters splashed through with a flick of the wrist:
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) May 17, 2018
It was a bombastic second quarter for Houston — 14-for-21 from the field, with 11 assists on the 14 makes, and 7-for-13 from 3-point range — to knock the champs on their heels and send the Rockets into intermission with a 64-50 lead. Unlike Game 1, when Harden carried the load with precious few contributions from his teammates, Houston’s cavalry arrived in the first half, with Tucker, Ariza and Gordon combining for 42 points on 15-for-19 shooting to inflate the lead and leave the Warriors looking for any answer other than Durant making everything.
Golden State couldn’t find one in the third quarter, either.
Durant continued to roast Houston’s defense, scoring 18 points in the frame — as many as he’d managed in the first two quarters combined — to carry an otherwise lifeless Warriors offense. But Paul (11 of his 16 in the third) and Harden (seven of his 27) matched him, and while Durant remained the only thing Golden State could rely on, Houston had more hands on deck.
While Curry kept misfiring from 3, Paul, Harden and Gordon fought their way to the foul line and finished a slew of tough looks on drives to the basket, and Houston’s preferred small-ball lineup with Tucker at center fared just well enough against the KD onslaught to keep Golden State at arm’s length. The Warriors never got the deficit down to single digits in the period as Houston poured it on, taking a 95-79 lead into the fourth quarter.
They’d cut it to 11 on an Andre Iguodala free throw with just over eight minutes to go. They’d draw no closer, though, as Gordon knocked down a step-back 3 late in the shot clock after a possession of perfect defense by Green …
Eric Gordon doing his Steph Curry impression pic.twitter.com/sVwN0Ftcgv
— gifdsports (@gifdsports) May 17, 2018
… and Tucker followed with another, taking advantage of Curry missing a flailing runner on which he thought he was fouled, staying behind to argue the call, and not hustling back in transition:
Tucker’s 3 extended Houston’s lead to 19 with seven minutes to go, and the Warriors never threatened after that. Kerr yanked the starters down 26 with 5:33 to go, D’Antoni did the same two minutes later, and after three minutes of garbage time, we were all even at 1-1.
After suffering the kind of shellacking they probably thought they’d left in their lackadaisical close to the regular season, the Warriors will have to find some solace in having gotten the split they needed in Texas to be able to close the series out at Oracle if they can hold serve back home. And if that doesn’t work, they can always remember that D’Antoni’s preferred tactical talking point can cut both ways.
The Warriors can most certainly “just be better,” as they’ve proven many times on grand stages over the last few years. Now, though, we’ve seen the Rockets do it, too. If they can do it one time in the Bay, we might just be in for that classic conference finals we’ve been hoping for.
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