Warriors Lose 107-86 to James Harden, Rockets in Stephen Curry's Absence

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistNovember 16, 2018

HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 15: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets shoots the ball against the Golden State Warriors on November 15, 2018 at the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas. 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. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
Bill Baptist/Getty Images

The Houston Rockets may finally be establishing themselves as a top-notch contender following a choppy start to the 2018-19 campaign.

After general manager Daryl Morey announced the team was "parting ways with Carmelo Anthony," Houston defeated the Golden State Warriors in a Western Conference Finals rematch 107-86 on Thursday at Toyota Center to improve to 7-7 with its third win in a row.

Golden State fell to 12-4 even though Draymond Green returned from his suspension from Tuesday's win over the Atlanta Hawks. It was still without Stephen Curry thanks to a strained groin, and Kevin Durant led the way for the short-handed champions with 20 points and five rebounds.

James Harden spearheaded the effort for the victors with 27 points, while Chris Paul added 10 points, seven assists, five rebounds and three steals.

          

Warriors Need Draymond to Be Factor on Offense with Curry Out

The word "intangibles" was created for players like Green.

He is a four-time All-Defensive selection, won the 2016-17 Defensive Player of the Year and has served as the heart and soul of the Warriors defense during this run of success. His willingness to do the small things like hustle for loose balls and battle bigger opponents even as a three-time All-Star is a major reason Golden State has established itself as a modern-day dynasty.

His physicality and ability to do those things allow head coach Steve Kerr to use small-ball lineups and push the pace against overmatched foes.

The bottom line is Green is the emotional leader of the Warriors, even if he takes things too far sometimes, but he is rarely needed to score with Curry, Durant and Klay Thompson. His career average of 9.2 points per game is not exactly Hall of Fame worthy but indicative of his tendency to impact the game in other ways.

His offense was nowhere to be found against the Rockets, and he finished with zero points on 0-of-3 shooting with five turnovers.

Golden State's offense was caught sleepwalking for extended stretches with tons of standing around and settling for lackluster shots if Durant or Thompson (10 points on 5-of-16 shooting) couldn't make a play. Green didn't do much to change that outside of five assists, and Houston didn't have to worry about him when he looked toward the hoop.

Golden State can normally get away with that, but the equation changes when Curry is sidelined.

His mere presence tilts the floor because opposing defenses must be aware of where he is at all times with his shooting prowess. They can't afford to double elsewhere despite the fact that Durant is one of the best offensive forces in league history and Thompson is one of the best shooters in league history.

That game-changing reality was missing Thursday, and the fact that Green was a nonfactor let Houston shift even more attention toward Thompson and Durant to challenge their shots and cut off penetration.

The end result was an ugly 4-of-18 mark from three-point range for the team as a whole and one of Golden State's worst showings of the year.

The Warriors are still the most talented team in the league and figure to be there at the end when Curry and DeMarcus Cousins are healthy, but they need Green to be more of a factor on the offensive end if they want to avoid dropping too many games while their two-time MVP is injured.

          

Moving on from Carmelo Won't Solve All of Rockets' Issues

There is no doubt the Anthony experiment was a failure.

Head coach Mike D'Antoni said as much, per Tim MacMahon of ESPN: "It wasn't fair for him as a Hall of Fame player to play in a role that wasn't good for him. It wasn't a fit."

That was clear with the Rockets' net rating of minus-9.0 when he was on the floor and plus-3.1 when he was off it, per NBA.com. The 4-6 record in the 10 games he played didn't help a team with championship aspirations establish itself in the standings either.

While Anthony averaged what would be a career-worst 13.4 points and 0.5 assists per game on the Rockets, don't fall into the trap of thinking his departure and this win will solve everything plaguing Houston.

It entered play an ugly 22nd in offensive rating and 21st in defensive rating, per NBA.com, and the 3.1 net rating when Anthony wasn't on the floor is a far cry from the league-best plus-8.4 it posted last season when the 10-time All-Star was on the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Houston was a scoring juggernaut in 2017-18 that finished first in offensive rating with Harden and Paul taking over games with their own playmaking and shooting around them. If they didn't score themselves, they set up teammates with penetration that forced defenders to collapse.

Two of those shooters are gone in Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, and Houston has also missed their length on the defensive side as it struggles on both ends.

Their absences have put more offensive pressure on PJ Tucker on the wing when defenders focus on Paul, Harden and Clint Capela, and he has been known as more of a defender throughout his career who has never averaged double-digit points in a season.

In fact, there is additional pressure on everyone's shoulders, as this roster is particularly thin without Ariza, Mbah a Moute and now Anthony. Eric Gordon is a proven playmaker coming off the bench, but undrafted rookie Gary Clark and unproven second-year man Isaiah Hartenstein were second and third in minutes off the bench Thursday, respectively.

It is no wonder the bench entered play with a minus-0.9 net rating, per NBA.com.

The combination of Harden, Paul, Capela and Gordon makes the Rockets a threat to win any given night, as they proved against the two-time defending champions, but there are championship-or-bust expectations after falling one game short of the NBA Finals last season.

The lack of proven depth, the inconsistent play on both ends and an early net rating without Anthony that is well below last season's mark suggest parting ways with the veteran isn't a cure-all.

            

What's Next? 

Both teams play Saturday with the Warriors at the Dallas Mavericks and the Rockets hosting the Sacramento Kings.

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