The angst of an entire Warriors fan base was crystallized with 24 seconds left in the second quarter of Game 6 of the Western Conference finals. Golden State elected to isolate Kevin Durant at the top of the lane, where he attacked and tossed up a wild floater despite the fact that Klay Thompson was wide open for a 3 in the right corner. In the first half, trailing by as many as 17 in a win-or-go-home situation, it seemed as though Warriors fans had caught a glimpse of their new reality, cheering for a team that ran far more isos and less of their trademarked fancy off-ball cuts and screens.
But it would be the last time Thompson got left hanging. After trailing by 10 at the half, the Warriors snatched the lead back and won by 29 behind a ferocious run featuring Thompson, who scored a game-high 35 points with nine 3-pointers. “Klay was amazing,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game. “The guy is a machine.”
Thompson was Golden State’s energizer. He moved, cut, and sprinted through screens like he alone was tasked with getting the Warriors back to playing their brand of basketball.
If you shut your eyes and imagine the Warriors offense, this is one of the images that comes to mind: a flurry of screens springing open Thompson, then a perfectly delivered pass leading to his gorgeous shot.
The Warriors started to find their rhythm during the second quarter, when they trimmed their deficit from 17 to 10. It started on defense, as they communicated better and allowed far fewer open jumpers. Getting stops led to transition offense. Steph Curry also ran more of the show, as they moved away from the Durant isos. Golden State finished six possessions in isolations or post-ups by Durant in the first quarter, to only four the rest of the game (and just two in the entire second half), per Synergy Sports. The Warriors need Durant’s isolations against Houston’s intense, switching defense. But it’s most effective within a greater, more diverse offensive ecosystem. That meant returning to the Warriors Way, running more on-ball screens with Thompson slipping for 3s.
Thompson hit only one of his three shots out of this action, but his gravity did lead to makes for other players on the floor. Early in the fourth quarter, the Warriors turned to the play with Curry handling instead of Durant, and Steph was able to blow by Luc Mbah a Moute for a layup.
Spacing has been an issue all series for the Warriors, which is a big reason why Durant’s isolations have been less potent. The Warriors have three of the best shooters ever in Thompson, Curry, and Durant, but there isn’t much else on their roster that inspires fear. That means the Rockets can clog the lane by straight-up not defending Kevon Looney or Jordan Bell, both of whom are as threatening on the perimeter as newborn kittens.
Even Draymond Green is only a mild worry as a career 32.7 percent 3-point shooter. Shaun Livingston doesn’t shoot 3s at all. Nick Young, of all people, is Golden State’s biggest shooting threat aside from their Big Four, which says everything you need to know.
But it’s not like the Rockets have been shooting the lights out, either: they shot only 33.5 percent from 3 entering Game 6. It seemed like Houston had flipped their Western Conference finals script on Saturday, finally catching fire the way they had so often in the regular season. The Rockets exploded for 39 points in the first quarter, sparked by an 8-for-12 performance from downtown.
The Rockets are 22-2 in the regular season and playoffs when they shoot 40 percent or better from 3. But they still haven’t hit that mark against the Warriors, as they shot 7-for-27 from 3 over the remainder of the game. Golden State returned the favor to Houston by helping off their less threatening shooters or non-shooters, which clogged the lane and forced passes from the perimeter or isolations to find open looks.
This play should feel familiar: Harden misses the same read that Durant did in the play at the top of this article. Capela sets a screen to jar Gerald Green loose in the corner, just as Jordan Bell did for Thompson at the end of the second quarter. As the Rockets’ only star-level creator, Harden will need to find the open man more consistently in Game 7 if the Warriors keep defending this way.
But as a whole, the Rockets appeared to run out of steam as the game wore on. Harden was asked after the game if he got tired in the second half and simply responded, “No.” But it sure looked like it when he had his blinders on and missed teammates that he usually finds for 3s, got locked up by Nick Young, and airballed a 3 while getting blocked on another.
The Rockets led 74-70 with 5:57 left in the third quarter, meaning one of the NBA’s greatest offenses in league history and a top-flight defense got outscored by 45-12 in the final 18 minutes of the game. It didn’t help that they couldn’t earn a whistle despite attacking the basket, but as a team, they shot 1-for-12 from 3 during that span, and committed multiple careless turnovers leading to fastbreaks for Golden State. Though Harden led his team with 32 points and nine assists, he also logged nine turnovers.
As a whole, Houston committed 21 turnovers, their second-worst tally of the season, trailing only one game from all the way back in November. The Rockets turned the ball over in ways you’d expect from a team competing against an elite defense: they got stripped, simply lost control, and forced the ball into traffic. But they also got funky. In the first quarter, Harden threw the ball at the back of Gerald Green, and in the second quarter, Trevor Ariza tossed the ball into the backcourt. Late in the third quarter, P.J. Tucker accidentally traveled by passing the ball to himself. It was a terribly sloppy performance filled with careless decisions and inaccurate passes.
The Warriors deserve credit for playing intense, connected defense with good communication and on-point rotations, but Harden and Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni both said the turnovers are a fixable problem for Game 7. Whether or not Chris Paul returns remains to be seen (ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported late Saturday it’s “less likely than likely” that Paul suits up), but the problem needs to be solved. The Warriors were 24-5 in the regular season and are 6-1 in the the playoffs when they win the turnover battle. The Rockets can’t give the Warriors extra possessions. If they do again, it’s over for Houston.