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Houston Rockets 94, Golden State Warriors 88: Houston wins with an ancient and secret technique known as “defense.”

It was observed by one of the ESPN commentators tonight (I do not remember which one) that every game between the Warriors and the Rockets should receive national TV billing.  As a whole, this makes sense.  Tonight’s game was anticipated to be a high-flying, high-scoring affairs where two All-Stars in James Harden and Stephen Curry would duel in a game between two rising teams who like to run, shoot, and not play defense.  Combined with the chippiness of the past two matches, one would have anticipated more of the same in an exciting game.

Yet while tonight was an exciting, close game, it was played very differently from the earlier contests.  While Houston launched a barrage of 3 pointers like normal, finishing with 15 made shots compared to Golden State’s 9, it was with defense and lots of free throws that the Rockets won the game.  Golden State needed 87 shots to score 88 points, and the Rockets also managed in the fourth quarter to prevent the Warriors from scoring a single point for the first 5 and a half minutes.  In a way, it was pure moneyball, as rather than heroics, the team as a whole worked together to win the game.

Initially, one felt that tonight’s game would be a disaster for the Rockets.  While Houston did manage an early lead, David Lee utterly manhandled Motiejunas and Robinson during the opening minutes.  The former lasted only about three minutes before he sat down with two fouls, not to play again for the rest of the half, and while Robinson did a relatively better job compared to Motiejunas, David Lee still managed to get 10 points in 7 minutes before he suffered an injury to his right knee.  While Lee left and did not return for the rest of the half, the Warriors continued to dominate as Klay Thompson scored 9 of the Warrior’s last 11 points in the quarter to give them a 30-21 lead.  As the second quarter continued, the game began to feel like a potential Warriors blowout.  Houston’s offense utterly stagnated with a Robinson-Smith frontcourt and a struggling Harden while the Warriors in their own turn also played excellent defense for most of the game.  The Rockets’ field goal percentage fell to a pathetic 31%, and the Warriors grabbed a 41-28 lead at the 6:35 mark before McHale called a timeout.

Whatever McHale said there, it worked.  The Rockets defense had its first major stretch of clamping on both the defense and interior against one of the best offensive teams in the league, as the Warriors managed only two field goals for the rest of the quarter.  While Houston’s offense did improve on the field, the important change was that the Rockets, and Lin in particular, grew more aggressive in the paint and were rewarded with fouls for their trouble.  Houston walked into the locker room at halftime with a 50-48 lead.

The Rockets started out well during the third quarter, as Lin continued his excellent play through both driving and dishing the ball to Motiejunas and Asik.  Whenever the Warriors made a shot, the Rockets answered, and things seemed to be going well with a 66-59 lead.  Then just as one began to feel complacent, Andrew Bogut made his only shot of the game in the form of a prayer 3 point shot from the corner with time running out from the shot clock.  Bogut’s three sparked off an additional Golden State run of 3 pointers as they racked off 11 straight points and finished with a 76-73 lead at the end of the quarter.

From there, Houston’s defense utterly clamped down.  Asik was the difference maker.  Morey recently stated in an interview that Houston is in fact the #1 half court defensive team when Asik is on the floor, and tonight the big man certainly demonstrated why.  With the Warriors playing rookie center Festus Ezeli during the first part of the final quarter, McHale opted to have Asik guard Lee and Carlos Delfino guard Ezeli.  Asik completely shut down Lee and the Warriors drivers, and the Rockets had the time to close out on shooters knowing that Asik was behind them.  While the Rockets were not able to take as much advantage during the scoring drought as they would have liked due to only scoring 9 points themselves for those 5 and a half minutes, they did manage to take the lead and held one of the better offensive teams in the league to only 12 points in the quarter.  From there, Harden and Lin drove to the rim for the rest of the game, kept the Warriors out of reach, and won the game and the season series.

  • The Rockets needed key contributions from pretty much everyone in order to win (and yes that includes James Harden’s game tonight), but no player helped more than Chandler Parsons.  Over the last 6 games, Parsons has averaged over 24 points a game on over 60% shooting from the field and almost 60% shooting from the 3 point line.  Tonight, Parsons had 18 points in the 1st half, earning praises from the ESPN crew, and finished with 26 points on 13 shots.  On a side note, Rudy Gay blew it late against the Lakers, missing several potential game-winners or tiers, and finished with 17 points on 26 shots.  Mr. Gay is making 15 million more than Parsons.  Life really is unfair.
  • It was alluded to above, but tonight was probably Harden’s worst scoring performance as a Rocket.  He finished with 20 points but shot 3-17 to accomplish that, with all 3 shots being 3 pointers.  Harden was completely incapable of finishing at the rim tonight, which culminated in a possession late in the game where he blew up Klay Thompson and Bogut but was unable to finish a not very difficult layup.  Some of that can be attributed to Golden State’s defense in the paint which was why Harden managed to bolster his point total with 11 free throws, but finishing at the rim is one of the key aspects for all superstars.  Harden did have 11 assists so it wasn’t all bad, but he could probably use some rest instead travelling for another game tomorrow.
  • Jeremy Lin played in the fourth quarter and had an important role late in the game as McHale repeatedly ran the Lin-Harden pick roll with the result of repeated trips to the line.  May we please put this silly controversy to bed now?
  • Speaking of lineups, McHale did not particularly use either Motiejunas or Robinson much during this game, preferring instead to send Delfino or Francisco Garcia out.  I’m not sure whether such a lineup would have worked if Lee had not suffered the knee injury in the first quarter, as he was visibly limping at the end of the game and really didn’t work in the post or on the boards as much as one would expect from an All-Star.  However, that lineup has been shown to work extremely well when the 3 pointer is falling as the team is a +4.4 on 3 pointers made.

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About the author: The son of transplants to Houston, Paul McGuire is now a transplant in Washington D.C. The Stockton shot is one of his earliest memories, which has undoubtedly contributed to his lack of belief in the goodness of man.

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