Houston Rockets 97, Golden State Warriors 96: One more game

I have no idea what just happened.

The Golden State Warriors just kept chipping away at what had once been a 17-point Houston Rockets lead, and had even surged to take a one-point lead with less than a minute left. The Rockets got the lead, and just needed to hold on the ball. Then they nearly lost the ball once, failed to inbound the ball twice, and lobbed a bizarre pass to Michael Beasley which the Warriors easily picked off. Ian Clark raced down the court, got a layup, and the game seemed over.

Then James Harden took a shot straight out of Jordan’s 1998 playbook to bring the score to 97 in just ten seconds. And Steve Kerr’s response, with 3 seconds left, was to give the ball to Draymond Green about 35 feet away from the court. Even if Green hadn’t dribbled it off of his foot, I struggle to figure out what Kerr was planning with this.

But Green did dribble the ball off his foot, and so the Rockets survive for another game. And while this means that Stephen Curry will probably return in Game 4 to bury the Rockets behind an artillery barrage of three-pointers, it was still a pretty nice win.

So how did the Rockets get their big lead to start off the game, and how did they nearly give it all up? It comes down to Dwight Howard.

Howard’s boxscore numbers for tonight were nice, with 13 points on 6-9 shooting and 13 rebounds. But most of that production came in the first quarter. In the first, Howard dunked all over Bogut, Ezeli, and then Golden State’s third-string center James McAdoo. Howard got alley-oops and dominated the glass, and the Rockets hustled hard to force the Warriors into turnovers. Even though the Rockets shot sub-40 percent in the first quarter, that combination of transition and paint play gave Houston the biggest lead of this series.

But after watching his centers get eaten up in the first half, Kerr ran small ball for much of the game. He started Marreese Speights at center in the second quarter, and Speights just hit jumpers over and over again, keeping Howard out of the paint. And from there, the transition game dried up and the Rockets offense fell back to “James Harden, do something.”

Honestly, that entire sequence with Speights shows how much Howard has fallen off defensively. Prime Dwight was a great shot blocker. But what made him such a defensive monster was how he could combine that shot blocking ability with a strength  that could overpower smaller big men like Speights or Al Harrington back in the day and a quickness which let him keep up with players on the perimeter. But he couldn’t do that to Speights. And outside of one great defensive position against Andre Iguodala, he could not do it against the Warriors perimeter players either.

And in addition to playing perimeter-based jump shooters, the Warriors ran with the hacking strategy, which worked today. Bickerstaff probably waited too long to get Howard out of the game when the Warriors began to hack, as Howard (along with Josh Smith, who the Warriors hacked) failed to hit much of anything at the free throw line.

But at the end of the day, going big worked so well for about one and a half quarters that it let Houston survive the other two and a half quarters. And there was Harden. Harden did have some stretches where I felt he was isoing and making fancy dribble moves for too long, but oh was he a wonder to watch tonight. While a 35-9-8 night for Harden is hardly anything unusual, I cannot remember one where he did it looking this cool in the process. It was fantastic to watch, and above all won the Rockets the game on that stepback.

The Warriors can play hard, smart defense with or without Curry, and Houston just does not have an answer for how to score when Harden is on the bench (Reggie Miller, in a display of brilliant insight, suggested that the Rockets should run a lot more Howard post-ups). But for tonight, Harden, Howard, and the rest did just enough. And while Coach Bickerstaff did have some mistakes down the stretch, kudos to him for playing Corey Brewer just three minutes.

Will the Warriors bring back Curry in Game 4? TNT reported that the Warriors expect him to. So after narrowly these current Warriors now, I guess we might sit back, watch Golden State assume their final form, and knock the stuffing silly out of these Rockets.

However, the factors that helped Houston to victory would exist with or without Curry. So perhaps it will work again in Houston as long as they can execute.

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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