As much as the Golden State Warriors want to tell themselves the loss was the cause of a myriad of flukey factors, the fact remains they have yet to beat a Houston Rockets team comprised of a healthy James Harden and Chris Paul. Point blank. Nothing but facts. On Saturday night, they were dreadful in the fundamentals facets of the game like defending, boxing out, and passing. Still, somehow, they pulled ahead late but lost in perhaps the most worrisome fashion; in crunchtime. Even more surprising, it was a shootout score, as the Rockets toughed out a 24-17 fourth quarter to win 116-108.
James Harden nailed a Kyrie Irving-esque stepback on Stephen Curry to push the lead to 6, then blocked a Steph 3 to seal the victory. After the game, the parade was on. Eric Gordon clowned Steph’s defense, saying he was the weak link and they were going to attack it early and often. Clint Capela, of all people, confidently determined that the Rockets are now better than the Warriors. Hey, when you win, you get to say whatever you want. Daryl Morey has put two mega stars together and aligned them with role players meant to give the Warriors problems, long, lanky, and physically tough.
They’re overplaying passing lanes, preying on the laziness of the Warriors. They have just enough switchability to worry the stars, and cause just enough hesitation to force the Warriors into long possessions. On offense, they took a piece out of the LeBron James’ playbook: finding weakness and stopping at nothing to exploit it. There was no pretty offense. Simply, they put Steph in PNRs or ISOs and went at him. And of course, they jacked up 37 3s to go with 12 offensive rebounds. A thorough domination of possession and gameplan that allowed them enough wiggle room to get to crunchtime. And in a close game, anything can happen if the talents of CP3 and Harden are there.
On the other side, the Warriors aren’t worried, and maybe they should. Draymond blamed the lack of focus. He himself has been coasting and was not a factor all game on defense, and turned the ball over 5 times. Steph laughed off a couple bad reads he admitted to having at the end. Klay Thompson couldn’t make a shot. This was a Kevin Durant game, but it wasn’t enough, he didn’t have the ball enough. 19 turnovers, most of which not forced by the Rockets and a 33-46 rebounding disadvantage were not unusual. However, the math problem usually aids a Warriors victory. That’s not the case against the Rockets team even more willing to launch from distance.
In all, it took a Steph 6-20 effort, Andre Iguodala’s absence on defense, Klay’s shooting, and an overall lack of effort on either side that led to a one-possession game in the final minutes. This is the type of game, however, that lends confidence to a team that has stars that have melted down repeatedly in the game’s biggest moments. It was never for a lack of talent that cause those collapses. And it might still be too little, too late, for a team going up against both Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant. But the postseason now becomes interesting for a Warriors team trudging along trying to find someone that will knock them completely out of their focus.
Make no mistake, the Rockets aren’t favored nor are they the better team. But they let the Warriors know that they can no longer treat them like the Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, Toronto Raptors, and even now the Cleveland Cavaliers. They aren’t going to just saunter into the arena, coast through 3 quarters, and expect to win with a few great minutes. No more screwing around. The Houston Rockets have arrived in the Golden State Warriors’ mental space. And we might have a new rival.