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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.

Rockets have much to improve heading into Game 2 vs. Warriors

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HOUSTON — The Houston Rockets have plenty of things to fix after squandering their coveted home-court advantage in the Western Conference finals.

Tops on their list: limiting turnovers, eliminating open 3s and making things tougher on the Golden State Warriors – particularly Kevin Durant.

“Kevin Durant and (Stephen) Curry, they’re good. So they’re going to make” shots, Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Our head can’t explode that they go one-on-one and make shots … you have to be able to absorb some of their greatness; at the same time, don’t make the mental errors that we did. That would accumulate for 15, 20 points, and that’s the difference in the game.”

Some almost sounds like the Rockets will have to play almost perfect beat the Warriors. They wouldn’t go as far as to say that, but James Harden, who scored 41 in Game 1, did say that at this level the margin for error gets razor thin.

“It’s the (conference) finals,” he said. “There’s four teams here for a reason. Obviously these four teams have done great things all year. You can’t make the same mental mistakes like you’re in a regular season.”

There were plenty of Rockets miscues in Game 1.

They coughed up the ball 13 times on Monday and the Warriors outscored the Rockets 18-3 on fast break points en route to a 119-106 victory. Klay Thompson scored 28 points and made 6 of 15 3-point attempts on a night Harden lamented that about 10 of those looks were wide-open. Thompson’s performance came on top of Durant scoring 37 points, mostly by knocking down long 2’s when he was matched up against smaller defenders.

That said, what the Rockets won’t do in Game 2 on Wednesday night is change what they’ve done all year and what led to them winning a franchise-record 65 games in the regular season to earn the top-seed.

“We are who we are, and we’re pretty good at it,” D’Antoni said. “We can’t get off who we are. Embrace it. Just be a better (version) of who we are and don’t worry if somebody else solves the puzzle a different way … we’ve got to play at our strengths.”

For the defending champion Warriors, they masterfully answered the challenge of opening a playoff series on the road for the first time since 2014. After falling behind by nine points early in front of a raucous Houston crowd, they settled down and led for most of the second half en route to the victory.

But playing in a franchise-record fourth straight conference finals, the Warriors know that they can’t let up after wrestling homecourt advantage away from the Rockets.

“That was a big win. We’re not going to downplay it,” Thompson said. “But we’re not satisfied. We have a golden opportunity tomorrow to take a good lead. You have to have a short memory in the playoffs, because the next game will come at you fast, and it might feel good to win, but it’s a seven-game series for a reason.”

Now they believe they’re up for an even bigger test in Game 2, with the Rockets desperate not to head to Oakland in a 0-2 hole. But they insist they won’t approach this game any differently than they did the opener.

“I think the game really came down to staying solid and allowing our talent to shine through,” coach Steve Kerr said. “We have so many gifted players, that as long as we’re solid with the ball, we don’t make mistakes, defend with intensity, then our talent’s going to take over.”

To counteract all of that talent, the Rockets must find a way to get more players involved offensively to provide support for Harden. Chris Paul scored 23 points on Monday, but P.J. Tucker and Trevor Ariza, who combined to average almost 18 points in Houston’s first 10 postseason games, managed just nine points combined in Game 1.

Part of the struggles came from Ariza getting into foul trouble early, picking up his fifth foul with about 10 minutes left in the third quarter. While the Rockets still expect Durant to get his points, they hope Ariza will be able to stay on the floor more on Wednesday to try and make him work harder for them.

The Rockets insist that they aren’t going to let the disappointment of their loss in the opener bleed into Game 2. Harden took it upon himself to check in with his teammates after Game 1, calling them up to see if they had their heads in the right place and remind them that there’s a lot more to play for.

“I wanted to make sure that they’re good and they’re in a good place,” he said. “All the guys seem happy and motivated. So we watch film, we can correct some things, and (Wednesday) we should be better.”

 

Forget the isolation offense, Rockets’ awful Game 1 defense is much bigger problem

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The image from Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals that should keep coach Mike D’Antoni up at night is not Kevin Durant taking fadeaway jumpers right over the top of P.J. Tucker, or even Stephen Curry working hard and getting a couple of steals off James Harden as the Rockets tried to isolate him on defense.

No, Houston’s nightmares should be filled with Klay Thompson hitting wide open, uncontested three after uncontested three.

Thompson took 18 shots in Game 1 and only four were contested (according to the NBA’s tracking data). He finished with 28 points and six made threes on 15 attempts. All game long Harden — the primary defender on Thomspon much of the night — either got burned by Thompson on cuts or just lost him as he tried to switch and help on others. Nine of Curry’s 15 shots were also uncontested. Harden, despite his 41 points on one end of the floor, was a defensive mess that the Warriors targeted all night long in Game 1.

A lot was made — both on the national broadcast and in writing out of that game — about the Rockets isolation-heavy offense and how the Warriors defended that. It is worth some discussion, although that is precisely how the Rockets have played all season — slowing the pace (they were 14th in the NBA) and hunting out mismatches with Harden and Chris Paul, two of the best isolation players in the game. Points for everyone else came off those actions. That is who the Rockets are now.

The Rockets bigger problem in Game 1 was their switching defense — the Warriors had a 118.4 offensive rating for the game (points scored per 100 possessions, stats via Cleaning the Glass), with a ridiculous team true shooting percentage of 65.4.

If the Rockets can’t do a better job of getting stops, this is going to be a short series.

“When you get this deep in the playoffs, it’s all about defense. You have to be a great defensive team to win a championship,” Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr said after the game. “You just have to be.”

The Rockets had the sixth-best defense in the NBA in the regular season, but they looked nothing like that in Game 1. They couldn’t get the ball out of the hands of Durant, Curry, or Thompson.

The Warriors three best players — three of the best shooters/scorers in the game today — were able to get up 60 of the Warriors 80 shots in this game (and a combined 26 three-point attempts). If the best scorers in the world get to take 75 percent of the team’s shot attempts, the Warriors are going to win. Meanwhile, the guys most teams want to force to shoot didn’t have too much: Andre Iguodala took just three shots, Draymond Green five, Kevon Looney one. Every game one of the Warriors’ big three is going to get up a lot of shots, but if all three of them do (and a lot of those looks are not contested) it’s going to be a long night.

“(Durant is) seven feet, shoots falling away, he’s one of the best scorers ever, right?” D’Antoni said. “I thought he was extremely good. We can withstand that. We can’t withstand turning the ball over, missing layups, Klay Thompson got up 15 threes — he can’t get up 15 threes. We’re switching everything and staying out for that reason. So we have to clean up some stuff.”

All season long the Rockets switched everything defensively — every on and off the ball pick, even when they didn’t have to — in preparation for this series. Against the Warriors’ versatility switching is needed and must be seamless. Houston did not do that in Game 1.

The Rockets did do a couple good things defensively, such as limiting the Warriors in transition. Golden State started 15.3 percent of their possessions in this game in transition, a much lower percentage than in the regular season (when the Warriors were north of 20 percent). However, when the Warriors did run they were very efficient, scoring 114.3 points per 100 possessions (stats via Cleaning the Glass).

It was not enough. The Rockets need to be much better in Game 2.

The Rockets need more Clint Capela on Wednesday night — he had a couple of blocks and played respectable defense in this game.

More than that, the Rockets need better team defense from guys like Harden, Paul, Trevor Ariza, Tucker and the rest. They need to contest shots, and they need to not let the Warriors best shooters — again, some of the best shooters in the game — take the 75 percent of the team’s shots.

The Rockets will score more points in Game 2 and going forward in this series. They will find their spots against the Warriors defense.

None of that will matter if Houston doesn’t get more stops. Defense is going to win them this series.

 

Five things Houston must do to defeat Golden State

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Houston has a chance — it can beat Golden State.

This is the best team the Warriors have faced in the Kevin Durant era — a team built by Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey with knocking off the Warriors in mind. It’s not just adding a future Hall of Famer in Chris Paul to the backcourt with James Harden that made them better, it’s adding switchable defenders such as Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker to the mix so they have the wings to better match up with Golden State. It’s the style of play, the role players, the entire package that works for Houston.

It all led to 65 wins and home court advantage for the Rockets — but now the real test starts in the Western Conference Finals against the Warriors. Best of seven between the two best teams in the NBA.

Here are five things the Rockets must do to win the series.

1) Find a way to slow Kevin Durant. Stephen Curry and his shooting is the fire that fuels the Warriors, with Klay Thompson creating sparks of his own. Draymond Green is the match, the accelerant that gets that fire started. Those guys can do it by themselves — they won a title before Durant got to town.

However, Durant is the X-factor, the single hardest player to account for and slow on Golden State. The reason is he can simply hit any shot — teams think they force Durant into tough shots (say a 17-foot fadeaway) and he just eats their lunch and buries it. He is as good a pure scorer as the game has, and with his height/length and high release, he is almost impossible to block or contest well.

The Rockets have to find a way — they can’t let KD just take over games. That starts before he gets the shot up — Durant’s handles are good but that’s the place to challenge him, try to get steals and don’t let him get to his spots on the floor. After that be physical with him, body him, get into him, don’t let him get comfortable. Do all that and Durant is still going to get some buckets, but the Rockets defenders — and there will be multiple of them, including Tucker and Clint Capela — have to make him work hard for those and be less efficient. If Durant goes off, the Rockets will struggle to keep up.

2) Clint Capela has to be a monster. So far in these playoffs, the young Rockets’ center has outplayed Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert. It has been the Clint Capela coming out party, extending upon what he did all regular season long. Capela is crucial to this team’s success, and the Rockets are 50-5 in games where Harden, Paul, and Capela all play for a reason.

Golden State presents a different test. Caplea will destroy Kevon Looney if Steve Kerr starts that way, but the real test is when the Warriors go small to the “Hamptons’ five” lineups with Green at center — Capela will have to defend on the perimeter, handle Durant, and be able to stay on the floor. A lot of good bigs can’t be used against the Warriors small lineups, Capela has the athleticism and ability to cover on the perimeter to stay on the floor when the small lineups get rolling. He has to do that. The Rockets need his rim protection and what he can do on the short-roll after setting the pick (because the Warriors will, at times, trap Harden and Paul to make them give up the ball). For the Rockets to win this series, Capela has to outplay Green and every other big the Warriors throw out there.

3) Isolate and attack Curry with Harden and CP3. The biggest misunderstanding about these Rockets is that they are a classic Mike D’Antoni seven-seconds-or-less team. They are not. These Rockets were 14th in the NBA in pace during the regular season and have played even slower in the playoffs so far. More accurately, in the regular season, 20.3 percent of the Warriors possessions started in transition (highest percentage in the NBA), while the Rockets were at 15.8 percent (11th in the league). Which brings us to another note about this series — if the tempo is up and it’s a track meet, advantage Warriors.

What these Rockets do better than any other team is hunt out mismatches and exploit them. They use picks to force defensive switches to the matchup they want, then the Rockets attack that mismatch in isolation (or directly off that pick). In this series they are going to go at Curry hard — he is the weakest defensive link on that team. Curry has welcomed this challenge — and the Warriors have seen it before. Plenty. They have ways to “hide” Curry and keep him out of these situations, and also to help and cover for him. Curry is a better defender than people give him credit for, but if his knee injury is still limiting his lateral movement he can be vulnerable in space. The Rockets are going to go at him.

Conversely, another thing to watch — the Warriors will do the exact same thing to Harden in the halfcourt. Whichever player/team can defend better when the opponent works to isolate the weakest link will have a huge advantage.

4) It has to rain threes — every game. This is obvious but it has to be mentioned — the Rockets need to not only take but make their threes. More than 15 a game (their regular season average). Houston had 18 made threes (and shot 46 percent from deep) in their close-out win against the Jazz. However, the Rockets won Game 4 in that series with just 10 made threes and shooting 26 percent from three — they are not going to hold the Warriors to just 87 points and win that way. The game the Rockets lost to the Jazz they made only nine threes. They can’t run hot-and-cold from deep in this series, they don’t have that margin for error anymore. The Rockets need to win at least a couple of games this series just because they are ridiculously hot from three as a team. However, any nights they go cold they will lose, the Warriors are just too good.

5) James Harden and Chris Paul both must be on. In that closeout game against the Jazz, the headlines were about CP3 going off — 41 points, eight made threes, 10 assists. He was dominant. He had to be — Harden was off with 18 points on 22 shots, 1-of-7 from three, and almost as many turnovers as assists. Against most teams that is a luxury the Rockets have with their depth — a lousy night by one star can be made up for by a hot one from the other.

Not anymore. Against the Warriors and their depth and versatility, the Rockets need both stars to play well every game. No more off nights, no hitting the wall, no nights of frustration or it will cost the team a game. The Rockets’ two best players have to step up on the biggest stage.

The Rockets can beat the Warriors, but their margin for error is almost nil. They have to have their stars playing at their peak, Clint Capela owning the paint, and for the threes to fall. All things that can happen. The Rockets can win this series. However, it will take the best version of themselves to do that, and we’ll see if they can summon that enough in a seven-game series.