One of the defining characteristics of the Houston Rockets during the James Harden / Chris Paul era is how everyone, from the coaches to the players to front office, has avoided the histrionics of other NBA teams (I’m looking particularly at you, Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics), staying humble and emphasizing the importance of simply getting the task done. This type of humility is a defining principle of successful businesses across the world, whether it’s entrepreneurs “pivoting” from a failing business model to corporates looking to avoid stagnation by developing new ideas via in-house start-up accelerators. Being humble can often lead to innovation – if you bask in your current accomplishments, you’ll never be able to move forward.
Leading up to Game 3, the Rockets by no means have had accomplished moments in this second-round series with Golden State Warriors, but throughout the lowest moments of the season, whether it was their 11-14 start, losing Chris Paul and Clint Capela to injury, or Melogate, the team has found a way to dig deep by being focused on the task at hand. It is this type of character and will that allowed the Rockets to salvage their season despite the twists and turns it laid in the team’s path towards once again competing for a championship. With the team down 2-0 to the vaunted Golden State Warriors, the Houston Rockets showed that level of grit and determination once again tonight.
In the 1st quarter, Clint Capela finally broke out of his slump and showed his presence on the glass and on the board. Having been a combined -36 in the last two games against GSW, he has been thoroughly outplayed by the Warriors small ball lineups. Clint was able to grab six boards in this quarter alone (three offensive, three defensive) as well as completely posterize Andre Iguodala:
James Harden, finally being able to see again after Draymond Green sliced his eyes in Game 2, had a slow start offensively, but was getting others involved, particularly Capela on the pick-and-roll. However, Golden State simply couldn’t miss, seemingly hitting every contested mid-range shot, and at one point the Rockets were down by 9. In the first two games in this series, the Rockets’ slow starts in the 1st quarter have been their kryptonite, as in both Game 1 and 2, Houston had outscored Golden State in the subsequent 2nd, 3rd and 4th quarters. There have been a lot of what-ifs in this series for the Rockets so far, from Austin Rivers unavailability in Game 1 to uncalled landing area fouls, but the Rockets’ inability to come out aggressively is something that could have simply been alleviated through more effort.
Rockets fans thought once again the team would be playing from behind, but the team, following a 20-11 deficit, subsequently went on a run to swing the score to Houston’s favor, as the team went up 36-27 midway into the 2nd quarter. Much of this was fueled by simply an extraordinary showing by Eric Gordon. In contrast to last year’s playoff run, Eric Gordon has been sensational these first two rounds, reminding fans and players alike just how valuable he is to his team:
Gordon would go on to score 20 points in the 1st half alone, a playoff high. It wasn’t just Gordon, though, as Houston got contributions up and down the roster. With a team as top-heavy as Golden State, one of the Rockets’ advantages in this series is its depth off the bench. If Houston can continue to get contributions from its reserves all while balancing the minutes of all its players, there is an opportunity to tire out the Warriors starters. The longer this series plays out, the higher the probability that this strategy could become a reality. After Game 3, this was the minutes distribution amongst the two teams’ starters:
Iman Shumpert, a trade deadline acquisition that has been questioned by many given his lack of production, was finally able to contribute to the team on the biggest stage. He grabbed several rebounds and hit some critical three-pointers down the stretch, ending up with 10 points and a plus/minus of +6 for the game. At the end of the 2nd quarter, the Rockets were up 58-49.
In the 2nd half, Kevin Durant reminded us all who he was, including former Rocket Patrick Beverley and the Los Angeles Clippers’ most vocal free agency recruiter:
With the rest of the Golden State Warriors going cold, Kevin Durant completely took over the team’s offense. While he “only” scored 15 points in the second half, Durant reminded us all why he is the most lethal shooter in the league today. It also reminded everyone just how fortunate the Golden State Warriors are – even if its five other All-Stars have an off-night – Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala (yes, he was an All-Star in 2012) and DeMarcus Cousins – they can rely on Durant to be their safety valve. Durant would score 14 points alone in the 3rd quarter and pore on another 16 in the fourth quarter and overtime. At one point, he simply couldn’t miss, going on a personal 10-point run to start the 4th quarter. And yet, the Rockets continued to fight back, as Harden would answer Durant’s 14 in the 3rd quarter with 15 of his own. Despite KD’s onslaught, the Rockets were able to grow the lead to as much as 13 points, but GSW continued to chip away and got it to within 7 heading into the 4th following a non-travel call on Steph Curry:
In the 4th quarter, Harden and Durant would continue to trade blows. The Warriors regained the lead following Durant’s personal 10-point run to make it 94-93, but the Rockets continued to hit one timely shot after the other. In addition to the supernova Harden/Gordon tandem (they would go on to contribute 71 points for the night), PJ Tucker showed us why he is such a presence in fourth quarters. With games on the line, it has been PJ’s outstanding defense, hustle, and grit that have protected Rocket victories. Mike D’Antoni knows it along with whole Rockets organization:
Tucker would make some critical offensive plays, including a magnificent sequence where he out-hustled the entire GSW team by grabbing his own rebound and putting it up for a 2-point hook shot that resulted in an and-1:
Tucker would end the night with the best plus/minus amongst the starters (+5) while grabbing 12 rebounds, including five offensive ones. The Rockets, who were thoroughly out-rebounded in Games 1 and 2, would end the night with a 20-rebound advantage (55-35) over Golden State, and credit to Tucker and Capela for showing why they are the team’s defensive anchors. With 14 seconds left in the 4th quarter and the game tied 112-112, the Rockets had a chance to ice the win, but Klay Thompson tangled up Chris Paul on a drive to force a jump ball, and the two teams headed into overtime.
In overtime, James Harden showed the world why he is the reigning MVP. False playoff narratives regarding Harden will continue to dog him until he wins a ring, but this was arguably his greatest playoff performance to date. Against the greatest team ever assembled in NBA history, Harden’s star burned brightest, scoring 41 points on 14-32 shooting, including seven in OT. James Harden wants the ball in his hands when it comes down to the wire, and in these playoffs, he has shown his ability to be clutch in defining moments, whether it was Game 5 against Utah or tonight. James would hit two floaters, which have become more effective against a smaller GSW team vs. the towering Rudy Gobert and Utah Jazz, as well as this dagger 3-pointer that gave the Rockets the lead for good:
With a six-point lead, the Warriors still had a chance to come back, but Steph Curry would thoroughly be stuffed by the rim on an open dunk. Isiah Hartenstein would then make his defining contribution to the series and playoffs even if he hasn’t played a minute on the court:
The Rockets are still in a 2-1 hole, but, as the team has preached all season, they took care of business. The Rockets needs to build on their Game 3 performance and win Game 4 in order to make this a series. They are still way too turnover prone – Houston had 13 to Golden State’s 8 – but they made great improvements on the rebounding front. Game 4 is Monday – one game at a time.