Through an 82-game regular season, the Golden State Warriors averaged 322.7 passes a game — the ball flew around the court with energy, found the open man and he buried the shot. For the season, 63.1 percent of the Warriors’ buckets were assisted. It was egalitarian. It was modern NBA basketball. It was “the beautiful game.”
The Houston Rockets, on the other hand, averaged 253.3 passes per game, fewest in the NBA. What they did lead the league in was isolation sets — 14.5 percent of their offense was the old-school style that the Warriors shunned. It worked for the Rockets, they scored an impressive 112 points per 100 possessions on those plays, but it looked more like a 1990s slog than a Mike D’Antoni offense.
In Game 5, the Warriors had 257 passes and 56 percent of their buckets were assisted (the first time that number got over 50 percent in a couple of games). In turn, isolations were the third most common kind of play the Warriors ran in the game (which was better than they did in Game 4, but still not who they normally are). Add in post-ups, which are essentially isolations just down on the block, and you get 25.7 percent of the Warriors plays in Game 5 being one-on-one.
The Warriors have been sucked into the Rockets’ game, and Houston is better at it.
The Rockets are up 3-2 in the Western Conference Finals and in the last two games have been the better clutch team. The better fourth quarter team. The team imposing their style on the game when it matters. For years the versatility of the Warriors allowed them to win regardless of the style of play — slow it down and be physical, play fast and up-tempo, whatever teams tried to do — but not against these Rockets. Not in this throwback, isolation-heavy style.
If the Warriors can’t change that dynamic nothing else will matter, and they will be watching the Finals on television for the first time in four years.
For the Rockets, imposing their will and style starts with their defense. Since the first game of the season — which was against these Warriors back in October — the Rockets have switched everything on defense. It was assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik’s plan, his counter to the ball movement of Golden State and the many teams trying to emulate their style. Everybody in the NBA is switching more on defense, but nobody was doing it as much or with the gusto of the Rockets. For example, Utah switched a lot against Houston in the last playoff round, but with Rudy Gobert at center they tried to switch less with the big men, wisely preferring to keep Gobert back as a rim protector. That opened opportunities for the Rockets to attack.
Houston switched everything. All the time. Even when logic dictated they shouldn’t. Big man Clint Capela has the athleticism and instincts to guard on the perimeter, so they let him. Other teams try to tag out quickly from the mismatches switching can create (scram switches behind the play are trendy now), but the Rockets tend to live with the switch and just send help. What the Rockets became doing this all season is smooth and proficient with switching, and it has shown in this series.
Kevin Durant is supposed to be the counter to this — he is the Warriors best one-on-one player, and switch or no there is no good matchup to defend him. So the Warriors lean on him in these situations, they get him the rock a lot.
Durant had 10 isolations and six post-ups in Game 5 — 16 of his 29 plays were mano-a-mano contests. KD can excel at them, but as the Warriors start to slow it down and hunt out those mismatches they move the ball less, and they play into Rockets’ hands. They have slid into Houston’s style. Part of this was missing Andre Iguodala, both a good defender and a guy who keeps the ball moving on offense. Without him decisions change — there was a fourth-quarter play where Stephen Curry drove past his man, got into floater range, the Rockets brought help off the man from the corner, but now that is Kevon Looney, and Curry looked then decided to take the floater rather than make that pass to a non-shooter. Curry’s shot hit the back of the rim and bounced out.
The Rockets have slowed the game down, muddied it up, and they are comfortable playing this way. The Rockets have thrived in this style despite the fact James Harden has struggled (Chris Paul has had a couple of big fourth quarters). The Warriors can beat 28 other teams four times in seven games playing this style, too, because they have the talent. Just not Houston. The Rockets have plenty of talent too, their bench guy Eric Gordon is knocking down seemingly every shot he takes, and this series is being played on their terms.
Houston is just better at this style.
Golden State is not dead in this series — they go home for Game 6 and are expected to get Iguodala back. More importantly, the health of Chris Paul and his hamstring are up in the air.
But the Warriors need to get back to being themselves — playing faster, sharing the ball (despite pressure), and using that to get the open threes or driving dunks they use to bury teams. It will not be easy — the Warriors played their game for stretches in Game 4 at home, but like a cheesy horror movie villain, these Rockets refuse to die. They are relentless, and they’re aggressive with their switching. The Rockets are incredibly good, and they know who they are. They have been themselves this series (just with more missed threes).
If the Warriors don’t get back to being themselves, if they keep trying to beat the Rockets at Houston’s game, they will be on vacation in Cabo before June for the first time in years.