The Rockets were lauded and mocked all season for their ambition in constructing a team with the sole purpose to beat the Warriors in a best-of-seven series. Houston ran parallel to Golden State for 82 games as one of the most efficient offenses the league had ever seen, though the two teams had drastically different modes of play. It’s convenient to say they zigged while the Warriors zagged, though simply serving as stylistic opposites wasn’t the end game. After the Rockets’ momentous 98-94 win in Thursday’s pressure-chamber Game 5, the vision for Houston GM Daryl Morey’s reverse engineering is a little clearer.
It starts at the end of the series, with two teams exhausting just about everything they have in their playbooks; it’s a best-case scenario that doubles as a worst-case scenario, a brutal slog that highlights two elite teams at their most raw and exposed; it’s the game we just watched unfold and self-immolate. To beat the best, the Rockets had to conceive of a reality in which they dictated the terms of engagement despite the world of talent on Golden State’s side of the divide. They did, somehow. And now, they’re one win away from a narrative-shattering NBA Finals berth.
When there’s nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire. It’s the haunting opening credo to “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead,” the first track off Stars’ 2004 album. It was all I could hear my mind repeat as I watched the two best basketball teams on the planet suddenly lose everything that makes them what they are. The possession battle has long been Warriors head coach Steve Kerr’s most consistent talking point—when they secure the ball, there is no team in the league capable of scoring enough to match their own staggering efficiency. They turned the ball over nearly once every five possessions on Thursday, allowing the Rockets an eight-point advantage in points scored off of turnovers. That neutralized the Warriors’ 12-to-2 advantage in fast-break points, which was harped upon ad nauseam during the TNT broadcast by Reggie Miller and Chris Webber. Golden State’s ball movement was sporadic, its rhythm overridden by isolation attempts from Kevin Durant, et al. And when you set yourself on fire, you’re left with Quinn Cook.
The Rockets weren’t any more in sync: James Harden had his worst game of the series (and, considering the stakes, arguably the entire playoffs) shooting a paltry 23.8 percent from the field despite a 35.4 percent usage rate, and the Rockets as a whole managed to hit only 25 percent of their 3-pointers in the first half. Houston had gone the entire season riding its inverted offensive pyramid with Harden and Chris Paul at the top all the way to 65 wins, but on Thursday, there was a level of offensive parity unseen since Game 2, which was an anomaly of horrible defensive rotations on Golden State’s part. The series has tightened to the point of complete suffocation since then.
As our Jonathan Tjarks noted before Game 5, the Western Conference finals have become a war of attrition. It’s the mark of any great series, but especially when it pits the two best teams in the NBA against one another. With nowhere to hide, and with defenses completely in tune with the opposition’s offensive game plan, everything gets boiled down to its essence. It’s easy to long wistfully for the intricacies of the Warriors’ labyrinthine offense, but in a game where every possession matters, all the moving parts required to get that precious open look can seem counterintuitive in the long run. As much as Durant has served as the antithesis of an entire dynasty’s identity, he was brought in specifically to address the Warriors’ bottom line in moments like these. Which makes it hurt all the worse for the Warriors when Durant (8-for-22 on the night) isn’t enough.
Depending on your vantage, Rockets basketball this season either explored a different route toward beauty in the sport, or resurfaced one of the ugliest styles of play from the past and brought it into the present. But again, Morey’s reverse engineering had games like these in mind; the Rockets would have to fully master the art of isolation basketball because when everything else is figured out, that’s all that’s left. The Rockets, in essence, refined a doomsday ideology over the course of the season to prepare themselves for the current onslaught. The Warriors have had to degrade their ideals to maintain their footing in the series; the Rockets have simply burrowed deeper into themselves.
In the crucible of the playoffs, the Rockets have almost become the inverse of the team everyone expects them to be. For the second game in a row, Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker were dominant on the glass and fought for key possession resets. Capela had one awe-inspiring block on Durant, but Houston’s most symbolic defensive possession of the night involved its two main offensive weapons:
Durant had been hunting for mismatches in the post all game long, and while Paul is surprisingly stout down low, the matchup favors KD 100 times out of 100. But it’s a lot easier to read and react to an isolation play. Harden quickly rotates over just as Durant makes his turn and blindsides him with a block. For two stars whose past postseason blunders hang over them like an anvil tied to a line of floss, it wasn’t just cathartic, it was a display of commitment necessary from a championship-level team. They’re passing the test. It’s no longer a dream.
Of course, their hard-fought Game 5 win could all be for naught if Paul’s right hamstring injury proves significant. Paul aggravated the muscle on a drive with less than one minute remaining in the game. Margin of error has been the key term of the series, and a serious injury to CP3 would effectively shut the door on the Rockets’ incredible season. The Rockets are barely hanging on by stripping their rotation to the barest of necessities; they played only seven players for the second straight game. This isn’t a team with a next-man-up mentality. The next man up is about to get annihilated. Even if the injury is less severe than it seems, a compromised Point God is no less a strain to both their offense and defense. If he can’t get proper lift on his fadeaways over mismatched bigs, if he doesn’t have that little burst of quickness to contain a player on defense, it all adds up to pressure that Harden likely can’t handle all alone.
Harden, Paul, and Mike D’Antoni, the three aggrieved faces of the Rockets, are closer than they’ve ever been to the oasis that has eluded them for so long. And yet, their respective narratives could all reset over the weekend. Harden, who was 0-for-11 from 3 in Game 5, could be back to shouldering everything for a team entirely dependent on his creative talent; Paul could be back, frustratingly, on the sidelines; D’Antoni could stare down a generational Western Conference titan and bow in defeat once again. The Rockets have chipped away at the Warriors’ margin of error for five games, and despite suffering the costs of this war of attrition, are presently on top. But for how much longer?