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:
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.