If Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals is anything like Games 1 and 2, the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets are set to gives hoops heads everywhere a collective heart attack.
Although the Warriors enter Saturday night's contest in Houston up 2-0 in the series, this matchup has been anything but one-sided. The Rockets blew a 16-point lead in Game 1 and erased a 17-point deficit in Game 2, and both contests were decided by five points—combined.
Game 2, however, was especially heartbreaking for the Rockets.
Trailing by one with under 10 seconds to play, James Harden had a chance to clinch victory. He deferred to Howard, who deferred back to him, then tried dribbling through Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson—a sequence that ended as one would expect, with Harden failing to get a shot off as time expired, and Houston submitting to a 99-98 loss and 2-0 series hole.
Now the Rockets are facing a must-win situation in Game 3.
Can they feed off the home crowd's energy and avoid an irreversible 3-0 death sentence? Or will the Warriors seize complete and utter control of this series while improving to 7-0 against against Houston this season?
|Western Conference Finals Schedule|
|3||Saturday||May 23||9 p.m. ET||Houston, TX|
|4||Monday||May 25||9 p.m. ET||Houston, TX|
|5*||Wednesday||May 27||9 p.m. ET||Oakland, CA|
|6*||Friday||May 29||9 p.m. ET||Houston, TX|
|7*||Sunday||May 31||9 p.m. ET||Oakland, CA|
Does Houston Have Anymore Postseason Magic Left in the Tank?
Good luck answering this question right off the bat.
Falling behind 2-0 in best-of-seven series is usually the equivalent of digging your own grave. Comebacks are completed less than 10 percent of the time, according to WhoWins.com. Houston itself, while better than the mean, hasn't found much success in these situations, per ESPN Stats & Info:
With those overwhelming odds in mind, the Rockets are one round removed from powering through a 3-1 deficit against the Los Angeles Clippers. Just when it looked like they were done, they won three straight games to earn this Western Conference Finals bid.
To write them off now is to ignore Games 1 and 2 as well. They were losses that could have been wins. And despite what the series score implies, the Rockets have at least shown they can hang with the NBA's best team.
But completing yet another comeback entails beating the Warriors four times in five tries. They haven't lost four of five all season, and it's unreasonable to expect a 67-win giant to collapse now, two victories away from an NBA Finals berth.
Still, the Rockets are alive until they're not. For now, as they ride the almost-won wave from Games 1 and 2, they have a flicker of hope.
Is There Such a Thing as a "Safe" Lead?
Let's get right to the point: No.
Houston led by as many as 16 points in Game 1 and lost. No big deal, though. The Warriors are the Warriors. No lead is ever safe with them, and they would never forfeit that kind of edge.
Except they did.
A 17-point first-half lead wasn't enough for Golden State to coast, let alone navigate Game 2 worry-free. The Rockets, like the Warriors before them, came storming back, setting the stage for a nail-biting end that, once again, could have gone either way.
Both squads are now overdue to build a lead that isn't then squandered. And with both also acutely aware of how Games 1 and 2 unfolded, the first team that pulls ahead in Game 3 should be particularly careful in protecting its advantage.
Obvious Adjustments Each Team Must Make
Golden State: Pack a Fatal Punch
Seventeen-point leads cannot disappear. Not at home. Not when you have Golden State's firepower.
The Warriors put on cruise control far too early in Game 2. They let the Rockets trap Curry and force the ball out of his hands, made sloppy passes and failed to exploit mismatches when they trotted Draymond Green out at center. Their 17-point lead was gone by halftime.
Conversely, in Game 1, they waited too long to hit the gas. They shouldn't be falling behind by 16 points at Oracle Arena, where they've lost just three times all year. Rather, they need to play like they did late in Game 1 and early in Game 2 for the entirety of Game 3.
"We've built up seven, eight-point leads in the last two games and made it a little too drama-filled for us," Curry said after Game 2, per ESPN.com's J.A. Adande. "So we want to figure that out as we go to Houston."
In the event they do, Game 3, as well as the series, will be theirs for taking.
Houston: Get with the Defensive Program Early
From the midway point of the second quarter through the end of the final frame in Game 2, Houston outscored Golden State 61-50. The Rockets did a fantastic job of running the Warriors off the three-point line, holding them to 2-of-12 shooting from deep and all but eliminating their transition opportunities.
Here's the rub: 30 minutes of aggressive and effective defense could not erase Houston's initial spongelike execution on that end. As Grantland's Zach Lowe pointed out afterward:
The Warriors shot a scintillating 64.5 percent through the first 18 minutes of action. They ambled into the paint whenever they pleased and killed the Rockets with three-point volume.
Curry specifically got whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted it. And that's on Houston.
Coach Kevin McHale's insistence on playing Jason Terry heavy minutes—presumably for offense, which he isn't providing—is putting the Rockets at a disadvantage early and often. He's someone you have to hide on the defensive end, because he can't keep up with Klay Thompson or Curry.
And that puts more pressure on not only Trevor Ariza, but Harden, who, while much improved on defense, is allowing Golden State players to shoot 54.2 percent from the floor overall and 44.4 percent from deep.
Chasing the Warriors off the arc and funneling them into a waiting Dwight Howard, Josh Smith or Terrence Jones proved effective late in Game 2. And if they wish to write a different ending in Game 3, they'll need to make further adjustments, whatever they may be, much earlier.
Golden State: Draymond Green
Green is an X-factor every night. He's the primary reason the Warriors can field super-small lineups that feature him at center. His ability to vacillate between defending Howard and Harden is an unmatched commodity, one that affords head coach Steve Kerr an infinite number of lineup possibilities.
But while Green is doing his part and then some on the defensive end—Houston is shooting just 39.5 percent against him so far—the Warriors need more from him offensively. He's made one of six shots from deep in the series and has been more of a floor-spacing decoy than an actual distance threat.
And that's problematic for the pocket-sized five-man units Kerr loves. The combination of Harrison Barnes, Curry, Green, Shaun Livingston and Thompson is a plus-11 for the series, but in Game 2 specifically, it didn't force the Rockets to pull Howard off the floor.
There was no need. When Green is only caroming threes off the rim or deferring to teammates, Howard—or even Jones—is able to sag off and sit deep inside the arc, where he is most comfortable.
Plus, the Warriors need a dependable secondary scorer with Thompson struggling against Ariza. Getting Green going on the offensive end, then, will be the difference between a convincing victory and another near-loss or actual loss in Game 3.
Houston: Trevor Ariza
Ariza is the closest thing the Rockets have to a third star, and they need him to play like it consistently.
Defensively, he's fine. He's made life difficult on Thompson and played a significant role in shutting down Curry for minutes (or seconds) at a time.
But the Rockets need a reliable No. 3 option on offense. Harden will get his points, as will Howard if he's healthy. Smith, Brewer, Terry and Jones, meanwhile, are patented wild cards. Ariza has to be that third sure thing.
Turning in passive 3-of-8 shooting displays like he did in Game 2 won't cut it Saturday night. The Rockets' hot-and-cold depth is only valuable insofar as their Big Three takes care of business.
Klay Thompson vs. James Harden
No other matchup is more important than this one. Not even close.
Harden is the reason Houston was in Games 1 and 2 at all. He's shooting 24-of-41 for the series, and the 38-point, nine-assist performance he turned in Thursday damn near crippled the Warriors.
Those numbers aren't on Thompson and him alone. He's blanketing Harden possession after possession. There's only so much he can do if the bearded phenomenon is going to drill contested step-back jumpers on cue.
Nine of Harden's 21 shot attempts in Game 2 went uncontested, though. He buried eight of them. Just as the Rockets cannot give Curry space, the Warriors—Thompson specifically—shouldn't be losing track of Harden nearly half the time.
Moreover, Golden State needs more out of Thompson on the offensive end. He's shooting 12-of-33 through Games 1 and 2, including 2-of-14 shooting from long range.
Thompson's offense is always a pivotal part of the Warriors' success, but it's even more paramount leading into Game 3, with Harden having officially reached extraterrestrial status.
It all comes down to this for the Rockets.
They won't recover from a Game 3 loss. The odds are stacked against them already, despite how tight they're playing the Warriors.
That's discouraging in itself. The Rockets won't always have a 16-point lead like they did in Game 1. The Warriors won't often forfeit a 17-point edge like they did in Game 2.
Harden cannot personify perfection forever.
But the Rockets responded well to adversity back in the second round, and these close games with Golden State, despite their gut-wrenching outcomes, prove they have what it takes to at least be in a position to win.
Had a few more things gone their way, this matchup could be knotted up. It could even be 2-0 in the Rockets' favor. And that's something they can take into Game 3.
All they need, aside from Harden being Harden and Howard being Howard, is more from their supporting cast. Ariza gave them something in Game 1, and Jones came through in Game 2. It's now a matter of stretching their pecking order more than three deep.
Give the Rockets enough opportunities and enough room to create some momentum, and they'll eventually break through. We saw it against the Clippers and to lesser extents in Games 1 and 2.
At home, with the knowledge they need just a little bit more, expect the Rockets to finally capitalize on the Warriors' willingness to let them hang around.
Prediction: Rockets 105, Warriors 101
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danfavale.