Warriors' Margin for Error Is Zero Against Chris Paul and James Harden

Will Gottlieb@@wontgottliebFeatured Columnist IMay 23, 2018

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 22:  James Harden #13 and Chris Paul #3 of the Houston Rockets stand on the court as the officials review a play at the end of Game Four of the Western Conference Finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 22, 2018 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

By all accounts, the Golden State Warriors should have beaten the Houston Rockets in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals on Tuesday.

A year or two ago, the Warriors were close to invincible. Even on the rare nights when they were playing from behind late, they could shoot themselves back into almost any contest. 

Game 4 didn't have that same feel.

The Warriors went on a 12-0 run to start the game, notching a stop on each of their first 10 defensive possessions. But the Rockets didn't go away.

Not only did Houston flip the switch on that deficit, but it also held Golden State to a meager 12 points in the fourth quarter en route to a series-equalizing 95-92 victory in enemy territory.

"It's all about toughness right now," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said after the game. "It's going to be spotty both ways. I think there was great basketball played on both sides, stretches of it. The rest of it is just gutting it out and finding a will, a way and a want. Somebody asked me before the game about our adversity, or how do we respond. I think we saw not only did we respond to the game, but we're down 12-0, and we fought back."

After Game 3, D'Antoni described the Rockets' play as "soft." That wasn't the case in Game 4.

"I regret it, because I'm up here with a lot of adrenaline, and I was disappointed in our overall effort of offense and defense," he said following Tuesday's victory. "They're not soft. It's just we didn't play with the amount of force that you need. And I know they didn't think it was going to be easy. It just sometimes happens, and give them credit or whatever. 

"As a matter of fact, I don't remember that game; I'm just focusing on what we did right now. But they're not soft, and they proved it. I misspoke, and you guys miswrote it [laughing]. I shouldn't have quoted myself, but I misquoted myself."

Houston's stars responded. After combining for only 33 points in the Game 3 blowout, they poured in 57 and set the tone for the game on both ends.

Harden and Paul weren't up to any new tricks. They relied on the same set of offensive principles that got the Rockets to the conference finals in the first place: a steady diet of pick-and-rolls and isolations after identifying the weak link in the Warriors' defense. With Swiss army knife Andre Iguodala out with a knee injury, Golden State was down a key piece in the depth chart and a cornerstone defender against Harden. 

Keying in on Stephen Curry and Kevon Looney, Harden was in his bag with the step-back three-pointers:

And some incredible finishes around the rim, exploiting mismatches:

Including this thunder dunk on Draymond Green: 

The difference for the Rockets in Game 4 was their defense, and their star set the tone:

While this game didn't come down to a single first-half steal and a runout, the tone Harden set with his effort changed the momentum for Houston.

The Rockets ramped up their defensive intensity and showed why they ended the regular season with the sixth-ranked defense. Harden, who's long been a running joke for his defensive miscues, helped the Rockets get the necessary stops to come out with a win.

Even with another strong showing from Curry in the third quarter and a 27-point night from Durant, the Warriors learned they have to tidy up their offense to advance to the Finals. Sixteen turnovers, many of which were careless mistakes, led to 13 fast-break points for the Rockets.

In a slugfest of a game, those points mattered.

"You know, it happens sometimes," D'Antoni said of his team's grit after fighting back and withstanding the Warriors' runs. "It's not like you know we have a magic formula. It's just we have guys that believe. We knew, we talk about a lot, they're going to make their runs. There's nothing you can do about it.

"[The] idea is to keep attacking, keep going back at them. Sooner or later, it's like anything else, they hit four or five threes in a row, they're going to miss two or three. If we keep attacking and score, then we can stay there within range, and we did. And guys came up with big plays at the end of the game. Big defensive stops, big rebounds."

The Rockets didn't start getting much help from the supporting cast until the fourth quarter. Entering that final period, Harden and Paul had 47 of the team's 70 points and were dragging the rest of the Rockets to the finish line. With less than three minutes remaining, Eric Gordon came alive for a key three-pointer to give Houston a five-point lead, and the Rockets stifled the Warriors down the stretch.

The game ultimately came down to one play, even if it shouldn't have.

"Well, I wanted the timeout," Warriors head coach Steve Kerr explained regarding the chaos on his team's penultimate possession. "Draymond was trying to call one around four seconds once he got trapped, and at that point the officials weren't looking, and they're not going to look down at our bench. So I saw Draymond trying to call it, and I was hoping they'd give it to us, but we didn't get it.

"But I'm always a proponent of pushing the ball off of a miss rather than taking a timeout, letting the defense get set up. So I thought we'd get a better shot in transition. That's why I let them play."

That disastrous play was what it was, but the issues stemmed from something greater. The Warriors were gassed in this game, in large part because they were missing Iguodala. 

"Our normal sub pattern obviously was skewed anyway with Andre's absence," Kerr said. "But I felt like in the fourth quarter, we just ran out of gas. We scored 12 points. Tried to buy a little bit of rest for our guys, but, yeah, they just outplayed us in the fourth, and they earned it."

Without the extra stopper, the Warriors had to overuse each of their four All-Stars. They also were down a playmaker, which forced them into too many isolations and post-ups. They only got their offense humming when Curry erupted for a 17-point third quarter.

Those are the roots the Warriors need to get back to. 

Durant finished 9-of-24 from the field and got the vast majority of his touches in the mid-range. He was 7-of-17 (41.1 percent) between the restricted area and the arc.

Though he made some tough shots, those types of possessions aren't a part of the Warriors' typical DNA. They're stagnant, low-efficiency shots that don't involve any of the other scorers. 

Beyond that, the Rockets are built to capitalize on teams that don't maximize their efficiency. Houston will always beat its opponents when it comes to the math, but when the Warriors play like they normally do, they can withstand the Rockets' three-point barrage.

On nights like Tuesday, they can't.

If Iguodala returns for Game 5, the Warriors will regain their depth, and perhaps that will free them up to resume playing their fluid, world-beating style of basketball. Until then, they may not be good enough.

The Rockets are constructed to put up the points and get the stops to force the Warriors to play perfect basketball. If the Warriors don't get back to their normal ways, they need to tighten things up and prepare for a grind-it-out series where they have far less of an advantage. 

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