The Houston Rockets, able to stave off a late run and defend their home court during Thursday night's Game 5, have given the NBA the blueprint for beating the Golden State Warriors. Unfortunately for the rest of league, the blueprint is nearly impossible to replicate.
But at least there is a blueprint.
Throughout an ugly first half of the eventual 98-94 victory, the Rockets swarmed Golden State's dizzying array of scoring talents, rotating perfectly and dissuading the Dubs from even thinking about off-ball movement. Why bother when it's just snuffed out and turned into wasted energy? Just as the Rockets have done in previous outings (especially throughout the 12-point fourth quarter in Game 4), they used a wide range of bruising bodies to cut off passing lanes, switch advantageously and force their foe to attack with one isolation set after another.
That effort wasn't confined to the first half, either.
Despite rough nights from James Harden (5-of-21 from the field and 0-of-11 from downtown) and Chris Paul (0-of-7 shooting in the first half before a second-half explosion only ended by an apparent hamstring injury late in the fourth quarter), the Rockets continued to buckle down on defense and frustrate the opposition.
They forced the Warriors to play Houston basketball.
Even after racking up eight turnovers before the second quarter was halfway through and finishing the night with 16, the Warriors still nearly overcame the stout obstacle. That's a luxury few teams possess, and it stems from having some of the best bail-out options the modern-day NBA has witnessed.
Yes, the rest of the league should feel encouraged after watching a dynastic squad struggle. These Warriors are beatable; it just takes a deep collection of talent working cohesively as a stifling group of defenders taking up airspace in both jerseys and heads. But at the same time, the other 29 organizations should be a bit worried that Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and the rest of the defending champions can nearly win when they're not playing their typical brand of basketball. Had Quinn Cook drilled a wide-open triple with under a minute remaining, who knows what the final seconds would've held?
Nevertheless, those bail-out options weren't enough Thursday night. The ball movement wasn't there—a direct byproduct of Houston's pesky rotations and the ceaseless defensive brilliance of PJ Tucker, who knew exactly when to help from the weak side at all times.
And this isn't a new problem for the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. It's not a takeaway originating solely in the Game 5 proceedings.
Golden State has seemingly forgotten it thrives most when playing pass-happy basketball, and the ball movement that gave previous contests the occasional feel of perfection has entirely disappeared against a stifling Houston unit that ranked No. 6 in defensive rating during the regular season.
The stagnation was even more obvious Thursday night, giving the illusion that the Rockets were working against a version of Durant still convinced he was playing for the Oklahoma City Thunder and former head coach Scott Brooks. Whenever the lanky forward drove to the hoop, multiple defenders greeted him as he still refused to kick the ball out to the perimeter.
Durant's scoring 29 points seems like it should work in Golden State's favor. And yet, he often hindered the flow of the offense—whatever minimal flow existed, to be clear—with his takeover proclivities. He needed 22 field-goal attempts to get his final tally, and he failed to earn even a single dime.
Such a development is exactly what the Rockets should've been dreaming about before the beginning of this penultimate round. Led by Harden and Paul—especially the former—they had become, rather clearly, the league's best isolation team throughout the regular season. No club was close to matching their frequency with this typically inefficient action, and they still easily paced the Association in points-per-ISO possession. In fact, the difference between them (1.12) and the No. 2 Los Angeles Clippers (1.0) was as large as the gap between the Clippers and the No. 15 Memphis Grizzlies (0.88).
Getting the Warriors into a battle featuring this biggest strength—as well as a play type that saw the Dubs finish the first 82 games ranked "only" No. 4 in points per possession (0.95)—was surely a harbinger of, if not a series victory in and of itself, a competitive clash:
But the extent to which this series between the NBA's two best teams has become an ISO-fest is still staggering.
Bleacher Report's Tom Haberstroh has the numbers, and they present a starker difference than the Rockets could have ever imagined, even in their most optimistic dreams:
The same is true of the assist percentages compiled by the Bay Area representatives. They led the league in the category (68.5 percent) during the regular season, and the number climbed to 71.3 in the second round against the New Orleans Pelicans after briefly slipping to 67.7—which still would've sat atop the pack prior to the postseason—in the first-round victory over the San Antonio Spurs.
Against Houston? The assist percentage was a lowly 48.2 heading into Game 5—the lowest of any team in either conference's finals. Thursday night elevated it slightly, but the Dubs only generated 18 dimes on 32 buckets (56.3 percent), again succumbing to the rotational pressure of their foes and attacking in more one-on-one situations.
It's a testament to Golden State that it can still nearly defeat a premier opponent when ceding the stylistic and strategic advantage. Talent is the great equalizer in the NBA, and the men who call Oracle Arena home have so much scattered throughout the top of the rotation that they always have the edge there.
Yes, that remains true even with Andre Iguodala still sitting out and recovering from a bone bruise.
Shots like this aren't supposed to go in, but that's Curry for you:
How many teams have a 7-footer—yes, I'm well aware Durant isn't listed as such—who can tickle twine with a tottering triple from the top of the key in transition?
Golden State boasts riches few teams have ever claimed. But against an opponent as dangerous as these Rockets, that's not enough. Those above highlights aren't plays upon which you'd like to rely, and the lack of structure defeated the defending champions during the stretch run. No beautiful sets emerged to save them, and ill-fated one-on-one attacks remained the offense du jour.
Even when forced well outside their comfort zone, they can display the malleability of a championship squad by relying on minimal actions you'd more frequently see during playground pickup games. But that's not punching a ticket to the NBA Finals. Not against a Houston defense geared toward these types of battles. These are the skills you want to rely upon in limited doses, the tricks you pull out of your sleeves only when absolutely necessary.
The Warriors don't need to have Draymond Green handle the ball on the perimeter while shooters run complex sets. Klay Thompson and Curry don't have to fight through myriad screens to create the tiniest modicums of space. But those plays help alleviate the burdens shouldered by the premier players, as evidenced by the Dubs boasting a higher assist percentage in victories (69.1) than in losses (66.5) throughout the regular season.
Durant can take over games. When he needs a breather, Curry is ready to break down defenders and show off his unique combination of flame-throwing acumen and finishing touch. Thompson remains a devastating kick-out option and transition trailer. Green can anchor the defense. The bench players know their roles. It's a team in the truest sense, even if the individuals aren't necessarily playing "team basketball" as we've come to know it.
But these job descriptions become far more challenging against an adversary clearly gaining the schematic upper hand and forcing the Warriors into what is, for them, an unorthodox style. That's not changing without a fight when the series swings back to the Bay Area for Game 6, nor will it if the Dubs force a do-or-die scenario back in Houston.
The Rockets quite obviously recognize how to frustrate their current antagonist. They know how to knock them back on their heels and force them into sole reliance on their pure, unadulterated talent without the benefit of an advantageous scheme.
If that's going to change—and it has to for Golden State to topple a No. 1 seed that's looked the part of the superior squad throughout this series—the Warriors can't just settle for the isolation plays into which Houston is compelling them. They have to start playing the type of basketball that got them here, even in the face of the toughest challenge yet, one now assuming the guise of a series deficit and an opponent that sure seems to have solved them.