By: Mitchell Felker
James Harden makes his bones attacking the paint. Everything in his arsenal is predicated on his ability to get to the basket. All those free throws, that wicked step-back; nothing would be as effective if he wasn't so good at getting to the rim.
So last night, with precious few seconds left on the clock in a one point game and the ball in his hands after rebounding the Harrison Barnes miss, Harden raced up court for what would surely be a last second play to decide the game.
"There's no one there, there's no one there!" I screamed at my TV, fully expecting him to get to get into the paint.
But Harden didn't attack. He haphazardly went into Steph Curry's body, then pulled up so that he could play a wall-pass with Dwight. Once he had the ball back, with no real plan of attack, he bobbled the ball off the Splash Brothers' feet. Game Over. Warriors 2, Rockets 0.
Why didn't Harden just attack the basket like he does so many times a game, usually with bigger defenders protecting the rim?
I mean, I get that he's double-teamed, and they do have the middle of the floor walled off, but there's no big man and he's got both defenders on their heels. And if he didn't like that look, why not call a timeout and draw something up?
But after Harden pulled up and waited for everyone to catch up to the play, there had to be a better option than attempting to drive at the same double-team that he just forewent, who happens to now have their feet set with backup behind them.
It's literally the same look he just bypassed, except a little worse. Even if a timeout was not an option at this point, why not run right at Dwight Howard's shoulder and use him to create space for a shot?
It was a pressure situation and there was no time to think, that's why. Harden played so well, but by the very end, he'd run out of magic. It's just terribly unfortunate that Harden's awesome performance was all for not.
Harden scored 38 points on just 21 shots, but this wasn't a free throw contest like a lot of Harden's big scoring nights. He was 9-10 from the charity stripe, sure, but he was also 3-6 from deep and 13-21 (62%) overall. For the second game in a row he was an assist shy of a triple-double, adding 10 rebounds, three steals and a block to his impressive box score. This was the best, most complete game for Harden in the playoffs. He and Curry duked it out all night and, if not for the late-game blunder, Harden outplayed the league MVP.
Houston fell behind by as many as 17 in the first half, but Harden was their answer. And it wasn't a flashy hit-em-quick comeback like the Rockets are wont to do. They did go on a 14-2 run to close the gap, but it was a methodical approach that got them back in it. Harden scored 12 points in the second quarter on 5-6 shooting and was absolutely ruthless from the midrange. The analytics community is fond of saying that only a select few players (Dirk, Aldridge, Durant etc) make shooting 15-18 footers worth the effort, but that step-back jumper that Harden perfected this year just added a year or two to his prime. That shot will save him from crashing to floor so much after attacking the rim time and again.
The Rockets might not have needed such a run in the second had the bench not been so bad. For a unit that got so much praise for their second round performance, they have looked absolutely ordinary two games into this series. Josh Smith was a little too aggressive last night, taking too many shots in the first half and then disappearing in the second. Corey Brewer made little statistical impact and finished with a +/- of -23. Pablo Prigioni somehow managed to finish with a -10 in only seven minutes of action. The only Rockets player off the bench to really show up was Terrence Jones, who finished with a line of 12 points, 2 boards, an assist, a steal and 3 blocks. He attacked and played fearlessly, although there were several times he took contested shots rather than kicking out to open shooters.
Dwight Howard ended up playing despite his sprained knee, and played well. He shot 73% from the field for 19 points, but was only 3-7 from the stripe. He did manage 17 rebounds (5 offensive), 2 steals and a block, but allowed too many layups in his vicinity. Steph Curry especially squeaked by a few times for easy buckets while Howard was in the area. His stat line looks better, but I'm not sure Howard made as much of an impact as Andrew Bogut (14 pts, 8 reb, 4 ast & 5 blk).
Besides Bogut and Curry (33 pts, 3 reb, 6 ast & 1 stl), the only other Warrior to really hurt the Rockets individually was Draymond Green. He only shot 3-9 from the field, but stuffed the stat sheet with 12 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists and a steal & block each. But where the Warriors really had the advantage was their bench. For the second game in a row, Golden State went on a big run with their starters on the pine. Shawn Livingston had another good game, making all four of his shots for 8 points and 4 rebounds. Leandro Barbosa's 4 points and 3 assists don't look like much, but he was +13 in his time on the court.
The Rockets can't continue to let Golden State's bench decide games. The Warriors second unit closed that big Rockets lead in Game 1, and they built a big lead in Game 2 against Houston's bench. It hasn't been Houston's offense as much as the defense, and Kevin McHale needs to figure out a way to generate stops with his second unit on the floor.
The Warriors are the better (or just healthier) team, but I can promise you this: those "Over-Rated" chants that were echoing through Oracle Arena in Game 1 every time Harden touched the ball will not be heard for the rest of this series, regardless of how many games it goes. They may not have believed it before, but there's not a Golden State fan out there that doesn't recognize how good the Beard really is anymore.
And for all those folks who thought that the Rockets were punching above their weight and didn't belong in the same class as the Warriors, those beliefs can be put to rest. Without two of their five starters, the Rockets are just a few plays away from being up 2-0 in this series themselves. I'd like to see what this series would look like if the Rockets were healthy and the Warriors were missing key-cogs like Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala.
But that's not the case. Golden State is the healthiest team left in the playoffs and certainly the favorite to win it all. Hopefully getting back to Houston will cure some of the Rockets problems, and those Toyota Center rims will be as soft and sticky for the Rockets as Oracle's were for the Warriors. Just one or two breaks and the Rockets are right back in it.