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Houston’s Risk-Management Basketball Didn’t Work Against the Warriors

Playing the odds and percentages is cute, but not all that helpful when Golden State is playing apocalypse basketball

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Rockets had three shot-clock violations in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, though it felt like seven. On its worst possessions, Houston’s brand of basketball can seem like a bastardized vision of the sport, as if a glitch had somehow implanted the stalled-out, pre-shot-clock game of the 1940s into 2018. Four players, frozen in place as the shot clock dwindles down to two seconds. It feels wrong—not only in visage but in theory. Daryl Morey has admittedly been obsessed with beating the Warriors, the NBA’s white whale; this isolation-heavy offense can’t possibly be the answer to Golden State’s riddle, can it? After Houston’s 119-106 loss at home in the opening game, it remains the question on everyone’s mind.

The postseason has, year after year, served as one elongated referendum on James Harden, Chris Paul, and Mike D’Antoni and their respective styles of play, dating back to D’Antoni’s time with the Suns and Paul’s time with the Clippers. In their union, they’d managed to triple down on who they are, for better or worse. It’s the pressure they put on themselves as much as the pressure of facing the sequel to arguably the greatest team of all time. Already in this series, every single possession has become a referendum on their style of play; you could hear it in the consternation of the TNT analysts. There wasn’t a single cut on that possession, Chris Webber said, repeatedly. Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley talked about how Houston caught mismatches but never took advantage of them. It was as though they were watching this Rockets team—the team that finished with the best record in the NBA—for the first time. In a way, they were.

The Warriors have set the modern paradigm of the league; their motion-based offense is the gold standard. Any deviation from that standard presents a team as flawed. In front of the backdrop of a Golden State offense steered by Stephen Curry’s gyroscopic off-ball play and Kevin Durant’s virtuosity in any sort of space, the Rockets’ offense looks downright ugly. Yet the Rockets didn’t go down without first proving they had some merits. James Harden’s 41 points weren’t a fluke. Barkley might not have seen the Rockets preying on mismatches, but Harden did plenty of that all game, often making Curry look like a defensive sieve and turning bigs like Kevon Looney into liabilities. It’s brutalism in practice, in some ways resembling the kind of caveman tactics that LeBron James was forced into when his Cavaliers had their backs against the wall in the 2015 NBA Finals. By creating a mismatch on the pick-and-roll and forcing an uncomfortable center out behind the arc into an isolation, Harden is betting on himself being better than his defender. He’s the best offensive player D’Antoni has ever coached; he’s winning that bet more likely than not.

The present system in Houston is riddled with ironies; chief among them is this embrace of the isolation, which had long been thought to be a relic of a terribly inefficient era of early-2000s basketball. It’s a convoluted knot of basketball logic that could have only been caused by nightmares of having to solve this Warriors team. But those Harden stepback 3s provide at least a modicum of clarity. There is a certain sense in eliminating the variables against a team like the Warriors, who can not only switch nearly every position, but have the best defensive communication in the league.

Like so many games against Golden State, it boils down to a possession battle. The Rockets came into Game 1 with the lowest turnover percentage in the postseason and were just outside the top 10 in lowest turnover percentage in the regular season. Once one of the fastest teams in the league, the Rockets have this season slowed their pace considerably, allowing Harden and Paul—elite offensive weapons who play at their own time signatures—to dictate the flow of a game. Turnovers weren’t a huge issue in the first half, when Houston kept the game tied at 56, but things fell apart in the second, when fatigue and foul trouble forced the ball out of Harden and Paul’s hands. Eric Gordon performed much better than he has all playoffs long, scoring 15 points off the bench, but all things considered, the Warriors were fine to let him take their defenders off the dribble. The Rockets had nine turnovers in the second half compared to the Warriors’ four. When possessions are intentionally being limited, it’s important to capitalize on every opportunity. The sequence that may come back to haunt Houston occurred halfway through the third quarter:

Harden had dismantled Curry on the perimeter en route to an easy layup. The Rockets could have cut the lead to one point, but instead, Harden mistimed his jump and escorted the ball awkwardly to the rim; it clanked, and the Warriors pushed for one of those familiar back-breaking 3s from Klay Thompson in transition. The very next possession, Curry got his hand on a loose ball and flipped it to Iguodala for a breakaway dunk. A potential one-point lead became an eight-point lead. The Rockets never recovered.

Styles make fights, and no matter how the rest of this series plays out, Houston has at least provided an important intellectual exercise for both Golden State and the league at large. The Rockets don’t have as much talent on their roster as the Warriors do, and they would be fools to consider replicating the Warriors’ style just because it’s en vogue. Houston is playing risk-management basketball, making sure that its supporting cast isn’t forced to do anything it isn’t comfortable doing; it just so happens that placing all of that pressure on two primary ball handlers also raises their risk profile. It’s a gamble. It always is against the Warriors.