The Houston Rockets have made a habit of staring elimination in the face and living to tell about it.
Their survival skills will again be put to the test when the Western Conference Finals series shifts back to the Oracle Arena, where the Golden State Warriors hold a 45-3 record (6-1 in the playoffs).
Behind yet another gem from MVP runner-up James Harden (45 PTS, 9 REB, 5 AST), the Rockets rolled to a 128-115 win in Monday's Game 4. The Warriors, who never recovered from a 45-22 first-quarter deficit, nearly lost more than the game when MVP Stephen Curry suffered a scary crash landing midway through the second quarter.
Curry eventually returned in the second half, but not before Houston secured its first win against Golden State in eight chances this season. The Rockets, who climbed out of a 3-1 series hole against the Los Angeles Clippers last round, will look to pull off yet another escape act. But the Warriors can smell blood, as they sit just one win shy of their first NBA Finals trip since 1975.
|Western Conference Finals Schedule|
|5||Wednesday||May 27||9 p.m. ET||Oakland||ESPN|
|6*||Friday||May 29||9 p.m. ET||Houston||ESPN|
|7*||Sunday||May 31||9 p.m. ET||Oakland||ESPN|
Are the Warriors Ready to Be Closers?
It's impossible to ask the Warriors to act like they've been here before when the organization hasn't appeared on this stage in 40 years. The pressure doesn't seem to be bothering them—they've still outscored the Rockets by 27 points in this series—but eliminating a desperate opponent is a different kind of challenge.
The Warriors passed that test on the first attempt against the New Orleans Pelicans in the opening round and again versus the Memphis Grizzlies in the conference semis. But it would be a stretch to say Golden State aced either one.
The Dubs' 24-point third quarter lead against the Pellies was eventually trimmed to as few as seven. Golden State's 13-point second-quarter edge against Memphis fell to just one before finishing that series clincher.
Golden State needs to bring its best to get out of this round, and it can't afford any carryover effects from Curry's frightening fall. The MVP doesn't think that will be an issue.
"It was all minor stuff compared to how it looked," Curry said, via CSN Bay Area's Monte Poole. "But I'll get some good rest tonight and be ready to go. Since it happened until now, nothing has gotten worse. I expect that to continue in the hours leading up to Wednesday."
Is Houston's Fate Already Sealed?
History hates Houston's chances of escaping this series.
Teams don't recover from an 0-3 hole. According to WhoWins.com, 110 NBA teams have tried—and all 110 have failed.
Monday's win helped Houston stave off elimination, but it didn't exactly build a lot of faith in the Rockets' ability to buck their historically insurmountable odds. Just think about what happened: Houston had a 20-point lead in the opening period, Curry missed nearly 12 consecutive minutes of game time to injury, the Rockets hit 17 three-pointers and had six different players reach double figures.
And Golden State still trimmed its deficit to as few as six points in the final frame. Had the Warriors stumbled into a few more timely triples, there might not have been a Game 5 to preview.
Even now, there may be too many numbers working against the Rockets.
"During the regular season, Golden State never lost more than two games in a row. In order to choke the series away, they'd need to duplicate that total in the span of a week," noted Bleacher Report's Alec Nathan.
Obvious Adjustments Each Team Must Make
Golden State: Value Offensive Possessions
It probably sounds strange to say offense was the Warriors' issue in Game 4, considering they surrendered 128 points to a team they held to 80 the last time out. But the Warriors damaged their own defense with careless offense. Their first 11 offensive possessions resulted in: six errant threes, two turnovers, a pair of misses inside the arc and one made triple by Harrison Barnes.
Golden State effectively fed Houston's transition game nearly every time down the floor. The Warriors' long-range misses turned into long rebounds, which the Rockets transformed into early attacks against a defense that was neither set nor particularly engaged.
The Warriors wound up taking 46 of their 97 field-goal attempts from outside. While they converted 20 of those chances, their attack quickly became too one-dimensional.
"The threes are an essential part of their offense, but they can't be the only part," wrote Adam Lauridsen of the San Jose Mercury News.
The Dubs scored 58 paint points in their Game 3 rout and only 44 of them during their Game 4 loss. They also went from surrendering just 14 fast-break points to 27.
Houston: Stay Glued to the Splash Brothers
The Warriors might boast one of the deepest rosters in the league, but their offense is almost entirely keyed by splash siblings Curry and Klay Thompson. The All-Star backcourt tandem has averaged a combined 49.1 points per game in the postseason. Draymond Green (14.4 points per game) and Harrison Barnes (10.4) are the only other Warriors posting double digits on a nightly basis.
With that being said, Houston needs to tighten the defensive screws on Curry and Thompson. The Splash Brothers are averaging more uncontested shots (19.8 combined per game) than contested ones (17.8) in this series.
|Houston Losing Track of the Splash Brothers|
The Rockets are begging for trouble. And there's no reason for these breakdowns to occur. Houston doesn't need to provide help in the paint; not with Dwight Howard serving as an anchor and Golden State lacking both low-post scorers and off-the-dribble attackers.
For everything Houston did well in Game 4, allowing Curry and Thompson to both shoot 6-of-13 from distance wasn't one of them.
Golden State: Harrison Barnes
It's easy for Barnes to be buried in the shadows behind his more high-profile teammates. He's never going to get in a scoring race with Curry and Thompson, and he can't match Green's versatility.
But he's a vital piece of the Warriors' puzzle, even if the stat sheet doesn't always make that clear. He can spread the floor as a shooter, finish plays above the rim and even hold his own in matchups with players taller and (a lot) wider than him.
"We feel like big guys battling against Harrison, as strong as he is, isn't as much of an advantage as them trying to guard Harrison on the other end with how quick he is and shooting from the outside," Warriors assistant coach Luke Walton told Sports Illustrated's Chris Ballard.
When the Warriors get in a scoring rut, they'll ask Barnes to create something off the bounce or working out of the post. They leaned on his lanky 6'8" frame to help hold Harden to just 17 points on 3-of-16 shooting in Game 3.
If they need to spare Thompson's legs again in Game 5, they might ask their oft-forgotten man to step out of the shadows and into a critical matchup.
Houston: The Others
The Rockets' playoff plan hasn't deviated much from their blueprint for regular-season success: follow Harden at every step.
It's hard to imagine the bearded baller giving anything more than the 32.0 points (on 50.6 percent shooting), 8.3 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 2.3 steals he's already providing. Houston has to find other sources of reliable offense.
Harden had plenty of it in Game 4. Trevor Ariza, Josh Smith and Terrence Jones combined for 51 points on 18-of-29 shooting (62.1 percent). But that same trio managed just 29 points on 11-of-28 shooting (39.3 percent) in the Game 3 debacle.
Those three players, plus energetic reserve Corey Brewer, are Houston's best bet to effectively support Howard and Harden.
Klay Thompson vs. Trevor Ariza
Both the Warriors and Rockets need defense from their lanky, sharpshooting wings. Thompson faces the tall task of slowing down the red-hot Harden, and Ariza's job is to make life difficult for Thompson.
For the most part, Ariza has been winning this battle. Thompson has been reduced to volume production, averaging more field-goal attempts (17.5) than points (17.3) in this series. But he may have rediscovered his stroke in Game 4, as his six threes topped the four he tossed in over the first three games.
"I've played this game long enough to know that I'm going to have shooting slumps," Thompson said, via Rusty Simmons of the San Francisco Chronicle. "The ball is not always going to go in as much as I want it to, but you can't let that dictate how hard you play."
Ariza has to ensure Thompson's hot shooting stretch doesn't become a full-on wildfire in Game 5. And the Rockets need Ariza to score the way he did in Games 1 and 4 (37 total points on 12-of-20 shooting) and not disappear like he did in the others (14 points, 6-of-16).
Thompson, meanwhile, has to make life difficult for Harden (or whoever else he's matched up against) and maintain the rhythm he discovered his last time out.
In Game 4—easily the Warriors' worst of the series—Golden State outscored Houston 93-83 over the final three quarters.
The Dubs lacked the intensity needed to send an opponent to its death bed, and it cost them. But the talent gap alone nearly helped them pull out a win.
If they don't have the right energy for Game 5, the raucous Oracle faithful should supply whatever is missing. Harden and Co. won't go down without a fight, but their knockout punch is nearly as powerful as the Golden State's.
As long as Curry is all right, the Warriors should take care of business on their home floor.
Prediction: Golden State 110, Houston 102