Golden State Warriors 106, Houston Rockets 104: Yes, it is actually all about Durant

The Houston Rockets had a plan going into their game against the Golden State Warriors Wednesday night. It was the same plan that won them the first three games in the season series and the same plan that had them up three games to two in the Western Conference Finals a year ago. They would bait the Warriors into playing isolation ball, pick-up steals on the inside, and keep Klay Thompson in check. The goals were simple as they always are.

But the plan did not work. Kevin Durant, who is central to all aspects of the plan, didn’t make the trip. Houston did everything they always do to encourage isolation play: they switched everything, trapped Curry and Thompson coming around picks, and left Green and Iguodala alone on the perimeter. The bait was set: a veiny shrimp dangling on the end of a hook. But nobody bit.

The Warriors started most possessions by throwing the ball inside to DeMarcus Cousins, but instead of bullying his way to the basket like he had in the previous match-up, he moved only to draw in Gordon or Harden, or whoever was sagging off Green in the corner. Left alone, Green would set screens on the perimeter, knowing there was no Rocket who could switch on to Curry or Thompson coming around the pick. Cousins picked up seven assists merely by keeping control of the ball and waiting for his teammates to run free. 

Several of those assists were to Thompson, who came into the game with a career true shooting percentage of .511 against the Rockets, his worst against any team in the NBA. Freed up to move without the ball, he managed to score 30 points against Houston for the first time since 2015. 

By countering Houston’s switches, the Warriors effectively eliminated their on-ball pressure. For the most part, Golden State was able to dribble unencumbered, and their passes were in rhythm and under control. Instead of drive and kicks, they moved the ball outside in. Instead of Cousins barreling his way inside, he was able to find space behind the help. He, Thompson, and Curry combined for 81 of their team’s 106 points.

They also caused problems on the glass. With the Splash Brothers buzzing around the perimeter, Houston was unable to set up under the glass. When a shot did go up, it was often unclear who was supposed to box-out whom. While Capela did his part, collecting 13 boards on the night, no other Rocket except Paul had more than three. 

But it wasn’t a botched defensive rebound that did Houston in. Despite all of their problems, Houston was down two with five seconds left in the game when James Harden missed the second of two free throws. PJ Tucker pushed his way inside and was able to bat the ball into the backcourt, but nobody was there to receive it. Andre Iguodala chased it down and quickly tossed it to Curry, ending the game. 

It’s actually pretty promising that, even with Durant out for the game, Houston was able to get so close. If the two teams match-up in the playoffs, there can be no doubt that Houston will go right back to the plan and try to take advantage of KD’s presence. They’ll set the bait and Durant will be there to take it.

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