PBT Extra: Can Rockets take Game 2 energy, execution on the road?

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Houston found its blueprint to beating Golden State in Game 2: Strong defensive pressure on the ball, quick switches and communication on defense, getting out in transition when possible, and starting sets earlier in the shot clock and attacking downhill with James Harden and Chris Paul.

Now can they do that on the road? Against a more focused and sharper Warriors’ team?

That will be the question in the next two games of the Western Conference Finals, and it’s what I discuss in this latest PBT Extra.

Stephen Curry, Warriors unconcerned about MVP’s shooting

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Stephen Curry has absolutely no concerns about his 3-point touch, so he’s counting on the first one he takes going in.

“I have confidence in myself and my teammates have confidence in me to do what I need to do,” the two-time MVP said Friday. “Never worry about it because I know how hard I work at it. It’s not a false sense of confidence. I know how hard I work at what I do.”

His teammates and coach also say enough with the panic about Curry already. Kevin Durant doesn’t even want to hear about any shooting struggles: he considers Curry the best shooter on the planet, and so be it if he shows he’s human, too, once in a while. This is after all the same sweet shooter who broke his own NBA record for 3s in a single season by hitting 402 in 2015-16.

“When Steph misses a shot everybody gets up in arms about it. That’s how great he is. So many people expect him to make every single shot. Sometimes it doesn’t happen,” Durant said. “I knew the next couple days was going to be about Steph struggling to shoot the ball but that’s the last thing I worry about with Steph. I’ve just got so much confidence in him on the offensive side of the basketball.”

Still, Curry has just one 3-pointer in each of the first two games of the Warriors’ Western Conference finals series with the Rockets as the best-of-seven showdown shifts to Oracle Arena for Game 3 on Sunday night notched at 1 game apiece.

He is shooting 15 for 34 overall from the floor, missing 11 of his 13 3-point tries.

“I’ve gone 0 for 11 before shooting 3s, 1 for 8. Whatever the case is, you’re always shooting that next shot with the optimism and the confidence that it’s going in,” Curry said. “So you can work on stuff in between practices and games and get your rhythm, just seeing the ball go in, work on your mechanics, but never lose confidence in myself ever. And that’ll never change.”

During his extensive shooting work Friday, Curry yelled out “Ahhh!” in frustration a few times. He hollered “Oh my goodness!” and “Crazier things have happened!”

Durant just shook his head and noted, “If you worry about missed 3s with Steph Curry …” then carried on about the Houston defense and how impressed he is that Curry has improvised and taken opportunities to drive to the rim when the Rockets switch out on him in an effort to protect the 3-point line.

Curry referred to his personal shooting coach, Bruce Fraser, as “sensei,” or teacher. They talk in depth about what kind of workout Curry needs on any given day to feel right with his shot .

Curry understands the scrutiny. Golden State took a 127-105 beating from Chris Paul, James Harden and the Rockets on Wednesday night in Houston.

“It’s something to talk about and we obviously lost so you can try to pinpoint stuff or reasons,” Curry said. “And obviously I didn’t have to talk to any of y’all to wake up and know I didn’t play well in Game 2. That doesn’t change my outlook on the series or what I need to do. If I don’t shoot the ball well in Game 3 it won’t change a thing about the way I approach the next one. You come to the game with the right intentions, the right approach and more times than not it will work out in your favor.”

Curry feels great physically. He missed nearly six weeks with a sprained left knee he injured March 23 before he came back for Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals against New Orleans. Coach Steve Kerr believes it’s far tougher to return from an injury during the pressure-packed playoffs, with no time to ease in with games that don’t matter or have near the same magnitude.

“I think Steph’s healthy, he’s moving fine,” Kerr said. “But this is more rhythm than anything. You come back from six weeks in the regular season, chances are you’re going to have a game where nobody’s focused and the other team’s playing their fourth in five nights and the defense isn’t that tough and you make a bunch of 3s and you just feel good.”

The playoffs, Kerr said, are like facing the best pitcher in the World Series night after night.

Curry is up for the challenge.

“Just waking up every day with optimism and confidence in myself and where I’m at. That’s all I can really kind of speak on,” Curry said. “There isn’t time to kind of coast or ease your way into it, especially with the intensity and pressure and all that stuff, so you’ve got to be ready.”

Kevin Durant’s isolations are symptom, solution, problem for Warriors

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Asked about his team isolating so much in Game 1, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said, “I mean, that was the best thing we had. I don’t know why it’s bad.”

Asked about his team isolating so much in Game 2, Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, “Yeah, we didn’t play well, obviously, at either end of the floor.”

Houston’s offensive style became a major talking point after Game 1, but Golden State has fallen deep into isolation. The Warriors aren’t nearly as comfortable with that tactic, but it’s central to their Western Conference finals.

Both teams want to score in transition and semi-transition. Golden State is just far more eager and capable. The goal changes once facing a set, halfcourt defense. The Rockets prefer to isolate with James Harden or Chris Paul. The Warriors want to move the ball and run more complex sets.

But Houston’s switching defense was built to shut down that very attack. The Rocket struggled to keep up in Game 1, but they settled in in Game 2 (made easier by scoring more efficiently and getting more chances to set their defense). Houston became especially effective by treating Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala as non-threats to score, devoting more attention to gumming up the works for Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

Golden State anticipated this problem a couple years ago and found a highly charged solution – signing Kevin Durant. Durant fits well into the Warriors’ dynamic offense, but he’s also an elite one-on-one scorer when things break down.

With the offense broken down more often against the Rockets, Golden State kept turning to Durant. And he has answered the call.

He scored 37 points in Game 1 and 38 points in Game 2. He’s making 58% of his 2-pointers (21-of-36), 46% of his 3-pointers (6-of-13) and 100% of his free throws (15-of-15) in the series. His combination of usage percentage (37%) and true shooting percentage (67%) is off the charts.

The Warriors can easily get a mismatched defender switched onto Durant. He has cooked James Harden, Clint Capela, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon. But Durant has also excelled against better-equipped defenders in Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker.

This is mostly translating to the team level. Golden State’s offensive rating with Durant on the floor (113.3) would have led the NBA in the regular season.

So, what’s the downside?

There’s a ceiling on Durant dominating from mid-range. Sometimes, that’ll beat Houston’s 3-point heavy attack (102.7 offensive rating in Game 1). Sometimes, it won’t (Houston’s offensive rating in Game 2: 122.3).

Durant has taken 49 shots this series while dishing only assist. Since the NBA instituted a 16-team postseason format in 1984, players have taken more shots with so few assists in consecutive games of a playoff series just six times:

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Golden State is just 1-6 this season, regular-season and playoffs, when Durant has scored at least 38 points. That’s not because his scoring is harmful, but because the Warriors turn to him so much only faced with other problems.

Durant’s isolations can then create new issues.

When the ball is sticking with Durant to such an extent, are his teammates still working as hard off the ball to generate even more efficient looks? Is Durant defending as hard when he expends all that energy on offense? Are his teammates defending as hard when they’re not involved offensively?

In a sport with real humans who get fatigued and have emotions, there are downsides to funneling the offense through Durant – even if he directly scores efficiently.

The Rockets have spent all season adjusting to those issues. Golden State isolating so much threatens its identity.

It’s working alright for the Warriors so far. The series is 1-1, after all.

But they’re aiming higher and surely aren’t content to keep playing this way.

Rockets give Warriors their biggest playoff loss since signing Kevin Durant

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The Warriors were treated as invincible ever since they signed Kevin Durant, and for the most, their play has only fueled the perception.

The Rockets looked like an atypically strong challenger, but a crushing Game 1 Golden State win in the conference finals instilled major doubt about Houston’s offense, defense and general ability to keep up.

The Rockets answered those question with a resounding 127-105 Game 2 win Wednesday to even the series, 1-1. The 22-point defeat is Golden State’s largest playoff loss since adding Durant, surpassing a 21-point setback to the Cavaliers in Game 4 of last year’s NBA Finals.

“We played harder and smarter than Game 1,” James Harden said. “That was the only difference. We didn’t switch up any strategies.”

Teams that split Games 1 and 2 of a best-of-series at home have won the series 61% of the time.

Will that hold for Houston, which – despite its regular-season superiority – is generally seen as worse than the defending-champion Warriors? We’ll learn more in Game 3 Sunday.

At minimum, the Rockets turned the tide after getting spanked in Game 1. Golden State proved over the last three years it could play at this level. Wednesday, Houston did, too.

The Rockets’ improvements, offensively and defensively, were all connected:

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The Rockets don’t want to isolate all the time. They’ve just correctly determined isolation is their best counter to Golden State’s set, switching halfcourt defense.

But Houston – boosted, but not completely fueled by, tighter defense – pushed the ball more and faced the Warriors’ set defense less often.

James Harden (27 points on 9-of-24 shooting) and Chris Paul (16 points on 6-of-14 shooting) still carried the load when necessary. But the stars’ attention-drawing, a quicker pace and good ball movement allowed the supporting cast to thrive:

Kevin Durant (38 points) once again carried Golden State offensively, but he didn’t get much help. Stephen Curry (1-for-8 on 3-pointers) never found his range from deep. Klay Thompson (eight points on 3-of-11 shooting) didn’t get nearly as many open looks. The Rockets stayed closer to Thompson in part by exploiting the lack of scoring prowess by Draymond Green (six points and four turnovers in 37 minutes) and Andre Iguodala (five points and three turnovers in 27 minutes).

Now, it’s on the Warriors to make adjustments. They’ve been here before, and nobody is questioning whether they belong.

But nobody should be questioning the Rockets’ worthiness anymore, either.

Victor Oladipo, Clint Capela, Spencer Dinwiddie finalists for Most Improved Player

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Just 17 minutes after his season ended, Victor Oladipo texted his trainer about preparing for next season.

That mentality will almost assuredly win him Most Improved Player this season, maybe even unanimously.

He’s one of three finalists for the award, which will be presented June 25:

Oladipo developed the approach of a go-to player, got into great shape (which allowed him to still thrive defensively despite his greater offensive responsibilities) and improved his pull-up 3-pointer. And he got traded to a team that needed him to blossom. Put it all together, and he went from a borderline starter to a true star. He deserves this award.

Capela and Dinwiddie are also deserving of recognition. Capela became a defensive anchor in Houston’s switch-heavy scheme, and he developed the skills to thrive with James Harden and Chris Paul in the pick-and-roll. Dinwiddie had an incredible journey to this point.

Dinwiddie thinks he should get consideration to win this award. I wouldn’t go that far. This is Oladipo’s to runaway with.