How The Warriors Finished The Rockets

Playing without injured star Kevin Durant and working with what appeared to be a rapidly thinning bench, you might have figured the Golden State Warriors would be in deep trouble if they saw a half in which Stephen Curry went scoreless on 0-of-5 shooting. After all, while the Warriors entered Game 6 having compiled a 29-4 record in games when Durant sat and Curry played, those games involved Curry averaging 27.8 points.

But instead of finding themselves in trouble on Friday, the Warriors found themselves headed to the locker room at halftime tied with the Houston Rockets. They earned that halftime deadlock behind both a 3-point explosion from Klay Thompson and timely contributions from several of the same players who had seen their performances maligned earlier in the series. Then, Steph poured in 33 second-half points — including a career-high 23 in the fourth quarter — to send the Rockets home and the Warriors back to the Western Conference finals for the fifth consecutive season.

Thompson knocked down five threes during that first half, pouring in 21 of the Warriors’ 57 points. He scored only six points after the break, but the early burst was key in allowing his team to survive Curry’s frigid shooting. Not that this was anything out of the ordinary for Thompson — he has become something of a Game 6 specialist over the past several years, knocking down in excess of 52 percent of his 3-point tries in the Warriors’ seven Game 6s during the Steve Kerr era. This victory also pushed the Warriors’ record during that time to an incredible 95-9 (and 18-3 in the playoffs) in games when Thompson makes five or more shots from beyond the arc.

Thompson was not alone in buoying the Warriors while Curry struggled. Golden State’s bench players had been absolutely dreadful during this series, but in the first half of Game 6, Shaun Livingston, Kevon Looney, Quinn Cook, Jordan Bell, Jonas Jerebko, Andrew Bogut and Alfonzo McKinnie actually came to play. That group of seven players combined for 20 points prior to halftime — more than they had collectively scored during any of the previous five games in this series.

Livingston finished the game with 11 points, marking just the fifth time all season he cracked double digits and the first time since the middle of January. Looney hammered the Rockets on the offensive glass, collecting 16.7 percent of available offensive boards while he was on the floor — a rate that would rank among the best in the league if he sustained it over a full season. His 14 points also marked the second-highest total of his playoff career, and Friday was only the third time he’s reached double digits during a postseason game. Cook didn’t score in the second half, but he dished out two extremely timely assists before the break and, late in the third quarter, set up Curry’s first 3-pointer of the game.

The Warriors also got incredibly valuable contributions from Andre Iguodala, who should somehow find a way to include the tape of this game on his application to the Basketball Hall of Fame, if such a thing is possible. Iguodala not only finished with 17 points, but he also knocked down five threes for the first time in six years. His most valuable contributions, though, came on defense, where he hounded James Harden into an 11-for-25 shooting line and came away with a steal on four of Harden’s five live-ball turnovers, including one that essentially sealed the game late in the fourth quarter. Iguodala was Golden State’s preferred defender on Harden throughout the series,1 and Game 6 was an object lesson in why.

Of course, all of those players’ contributions were merely the preamble to Chef Curry getting cooking in the second half. After going scoreless during the first half for the first time in 102 career playoff games, Steph had the most explosive second half of not just his own playoff career but of any player who had gone scoreless before halftime in the past 20 postseasons. Seemingly out of rhythm for most of the night, Curry didn’t really get going until he knocked down one of his classic relocation threes late in the third period. His next shot rimmed out, and a three-quarter-court heave at the end of the quarter came up just short, but he spent most of the rest of the game looking like the Stephen Curry we’ve come to know once he knocked down that corner three.

That Stephen Curry is a killer, and he absolutely killed the Rockets in the fourth quarter, racking up 23 points while shooting 6 of 8 from the field, 3 of 5 from three and 8 of 8 from the line.

Mostly, he shredded the Rockets out of the pick and roll. The Warriors had run a Curry-Draymond Green pick and roll 58 times during the first five games of the series, per Second Spectrum tracking data, for an average of 11.6 per game. They ran that action 10 times during the fourth quarter of Game 6 alone, and those plays resulted in 20 Warriors points, 15 of them from Curry himself. Driving layups, scoop floaters, step-back threes, hitting Green on the short roll so that he could make a 4-on-3 play coming downhill — Curry showed off the entire ball-screen repertoire down the stretch, and the Rockets simply had no answers for him.

Very few teams have had answers for Curry over the years, though the Rockets did hound him into some of his very worst playoff basketball ever during this series. Steph struggled in Games 1 and 2, but the Warriors still came out on top thanks largely to the brilliance of Durant and the under-heralded contributions of Green and Iguodala. Houston rebounded to tie the series by winning the next two games at home while Curry continued misfiring, but in both Game 5 and Game 6, the Rockets squandered opportunities to take advantage of his continued struggles until it was too late, and he managed to get going again. And when Curry gets going like that, the Warriors are near impossible to beat.

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How Do You Lose When You Make 17 Threes? Ask The Rockets.

In each of the past two seasons, the Houston Rockets have shattered previously held records for 3-pointers made and attempted. They took the three to previously unseen heights by connecting on 1,256 of 3,470 attempts during the 2017-18 season, then surpassed both of those marks by making 1,323 of 3,721 of their shots from beyond the arc this year.

Given that they’ve attempted so many more threes than any other team, it should come as no surprise that the Rockets have also had more single-game 3-point explosions than any other team. The Rockets have made at least 15 treys an incredible 113 times in the past two seasons,1 including Tuesday night against the Warriors, when they made 17. The next-closest team is the Brooklyn Nets, who have nailed 15-plus triples just 51 times in the last two years.

Connecting on at least 15 shots from beyond the arc guarantees you at least 45 points, so it’s not surprising that the Rockets’ record when hitting all those treys was incredibly good heading into last night’s game. The Rockets were 89-23 in such games prior to their Game 2 loss — good for a 0.795 winning percentage, or the equivalent of a 65-win season.

So then how does a team to manage to lose when hitting 17 3-pointers? The quick and easy answer: by turning the ball over 18 times.

The Rockets gave the ball away on each of their first three possessions of the game, six of their first 10, and a total of nine times in the first quarter alone. With those blunders, they dug themselves a 14-point hole less than eight minutes into the game. Houston cleaned things up a bit during the final three periods, but the early struggles gave the Rockets a turnover rate north of 16 percent — far worse than their seasonlong average of about 12 percent, which ranked ninth in the NBA.

Usually, the Rockets are able to overcome error-filled performances like this one.2 Before dropping Game 2 to the Warriors, James Harden and company were 19-12 over the past two seasons in games in which their turnover rate was at least 15 percent. Turning the ball over 15-plus percent of the time against the Warriors, though, is a different story altogether. Golden State is practically unbeatable when its opponent coughs up as many possessions as the Rockets did in Game 2.

Since acquiring Kevin Durant before the 2016-17 season, the Warriors had racked up a 41-6 record3 when forcing a turnover on at least 15 percent of their opponent’s possessions. After Tuesday’s win, they’re now 3-0 when forcing the Rockets into that many errors — with the prior two victories coming in Game 3 and Game 6 of last year’s Western Conference finals.

The Rockets compounded their turnover problems by allowing a ton of offensive rebounds. With Draymond Green (five) and Andre Iguodala (four) leading the way, Golden State snared the board off one of its own misses 18 times during Game 2. That 36.7 percent offensive rebound rate made this both the Warriors’ fifth-best offensive rebounding game of the Durant era and Houston’s sixth-worst defensive rebounding game this season.

In the NBA, if you have enough talent and that talent is harnessed in the right way, you can overcome all kinds of deficits. You can shoot your way to victory even when you’re irresponsible with the ball and even when you let your opponent run wild on the offensive glass. Sometimes you can even overcome the odds and win when you do both of those things. Just, not against the Warriors.

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How The Warriors Blew A 31-Point Lead

We could talk all day long about the everlasting debate over competitive balance in the NBA, but perhaps the biggest challenge the Golden State Warriors pose for many die-hard NBA fans is the issue of sleep.

Because they play on the West Coast, the two-time defending champions are often playing late at night, leaving East Coasters and even Midwesterners with a choice of whether to stay up and watch the action or to get some shut eye before work the next morning. Some play it by ear and call it a night only if and when Golden State builds a commanding, early second-half lead.

This was basically the scenario on Monday night: The Warriors went up by 31, 94-63, at home on the No. 8 seed Los Angeles Clippers, the biggest first-round underdogs in 30 years, midway through the third quarter.1 Yet those who cut off their TV at that point, or before, missed out on the biggest comeback — or collapse, depending on how you view it — in NBA playoff history.

The Clippers poured in 85 second-half points en route to an improbable 135-131 win, knotting the best-of-seven at one game apiece as the series heads to Los Angeles later this week.

There’s no need to concoct an over-complicated explanation for the comeback. While there wasn’t an immediate effect, Stephen Curry’s fourth foul prompted coach Steve Kerr to sit the scorching sharpshooter (who had 22 points and was 6-of-9 from the field) for an eight-and-a-half-minute stretch during the third quarter, until there were 13 seconds left in the period. By that point, the Warriors’ lead (still 17 points) had already been cut by almost half. And Curry’s magic had largely faded once he was subbed back in: Upon returning, he shot just 2-of-9 the rest of the way.

Fellow star Kevin Durant was efficient as a scorer but turned the ball over four separate times during that third quarter alone. He would finish with a team-high nine giveaways, and the club — whose problematic turnovers we’ve detailed here before — had 22 turnovers on the night. (It marked the second game in a row that Golden State has had more than 20.) Durant again got frustrated with Clippers irritant Patrick Beverley, who stands about 10 inches shorter, never stops giving everything he has and seems to effectively get into the All-Star’s head.

Lastly, the Warrior defense allowed Lou Williams, the Clippers’ top scorer, to get rolling and simply couldn’t find a way to stop him late. From the point that L.A.’s deficit peaked at 31 points, Williams, the likely Sixth Man of the Year, shot 11-of-17 for 26 points while also dishing out seven assists over the final 19 minutes of the game. He even grabbed a pair of his own misses and put them each back for valuable buckets.2

“We stopped playing, and got kind of disconnected, in that mid-third quarter,” Kerr told reporters of the turnaround. “We lost our defensive edge.”

It’s been tempting not to even bother writing about the key factors in this series, largely because of how enormous an underdog the Clippers are. But one thing the Warriors would have wanted to avoid going in was this: Don’t allow Los Angeles to stay in the game late. The win marked the third time this season alone that the Clippers had come back from 25 or more down on the road to win,3 and they were the NBA’s most efficient team in late-game, clutch scenarios during the regular season. With the score separated by 5 points or fewer in the final five minutes of play, L.A. outscored opponents by a league-high 17.7 points per 100 possessions.

The clutch shooting of Williams will stand out, but he was far from alone. The Clippers shot 8-of-14 from deep as a team in the second half. Montrezl Harrell, Williams’s high-flying pick-and-roll partner, shot 5-of-5 for 17 points after L.A. fell behind by 31. Beverley made a key play, picking Curry’s pocket as he brought the ball up the court early in the fourth, as if to say that the Clippers weren’t simply going to lie down, despite the Warriors still holding a double-digit lead.

And in what’s marked a sea change under coach Doc Rivers, a couple of the team’s youngsters — a contingent that just a few years ago never would have gotten an opportunity to show what they can do — pulled off arguably the biggest play of the game. Williams got a screen at the top of the key from rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who then short-rolled before hitting fellow rookie Landry Shamet on the wing for the go-ahead triple.

Still, the stunning comeback likely doesn’t figure to change all that much concerning this series, given the massive gap in talent. Yes, the Warriors lost center DeMarcus Cousins to what may be another significant injury, something that could throw them out of rhythm now that the playoffs are underway. Their chances of winning the NBA title — while still better than anyone else’s — are down significantly as a result.4 But the reality is that the Warriors still have a number of other All-Stars to lean on, while the Clippers have none.

It may end up being nothing more than a single, historic comeback in what amounts to a five-game series victory for Golden State. But even if that’s all, the outcome may have been enough to prompt some sleepy fans to catch the final quarter the next time they’re weighing whether to get that extra half-hour of rest.

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