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Winners and Losers: The Rockets’ Approach Didn’t Land With Officials

Plus: Brad Stevens shut down the Bucks offense and his doubters in the Celtics’ Game 1 victory in Milwaukee

NBA: Playoffs-Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The second round of the NBA playoffs is in full swing. Here are the Winners and Losers from Sunday afternoon’s slate of games.

Game 1: Warriors 104, Rockets 100

Winner: The Phrase “Landing Area”

Here we go. It wouldn’t be the Western Conference finals (sorry) semifinals without some good old-fashioned bickering about the referees. The Rockets are arguing that they should have gotten more foul calls based on the way the Warriors defenders were crowding their “landing area” when they came down from their shots. Slo-mo videos show that yes, there were times when the Warriors did not give Rockets players, especially James Harden and Chris Paul, space to land. Other clips show just how much Harden and Paul exaggerate the effects of that contact. Check out Paul’s hip here:

Or Harden’s feet here:

The “landing area” or “landing spot” rule is meant to prevent ankle and leg injuries. But how do you draw the line between a defender trying to contest a shot and getting too close to that area, or a shooter pushing his feet to move the landing area into a space where the defender is? Everyone from Mark Cuban to Rudy Gobert has an opinion they’d like to share on the topic. “I just want a fair chance, man,” Harden told reporters. “Just call the game the way it’s supposed to be called and we’ll live with the results.” Uh, James, not all of your fouls this season have been exactly “fair.”

What’s notable is that these are calls that the Rockets mostly got all season long, so they became an inevitable part of their strategy. And they were the best at it. Taking away that advantage has them up in arms and will no doubt become a series-long talking point before Game 2. I love to legislate landing area rules after a competitive NBA playoff game, said no one ever.

Loser: The Rockets’ Offensive Strategy

No team trusts math more than the Rockets. Houston rarely strays from its decided path: There are shots at the rim and shots from deep, and that’s it. The result is a 53-win, title-contending team that looks great most of the time but terrible on occasion. The best and the worst of this strategy were on display in Game 1. In the first quarter, the Rockets shot 1-for-14 from 3. In the second quarter, they shot 8-for-14 from 3. In the third quarter, they shot 4-for-11, and in the fourth, only 1-for-8. Your 2018-19 Rockets, everybody.

Houston was able to stay in the game by forcing the Warriors to cough up the ball 20 times and scoring 20 points off those turnovers. If there’s a silver lining, it is that they lost by only four despite shooting 14-for-47 from deep. It also helped that they got to the line 29 times and made 24 free throws. Mike D’Antoni, though, thought they should have been there even more. “We could have easily gone to the line another 20 times,” he told reporters.

Part of Harden’s—and to an extent Chris Paul’s—game is seeking contact on drives to the rim and on 3s. All season long, Harden and Paul have baited opponents into fouling them on both actual fouls and phantom ones. It’s not exactly beautiful, but it is effective—as long as the officials call fouls. In Game 1, the referees didn’t. Multiple times, Harden and Paul looked to be hit in the lower body as they came down into the “landing spot” following a shot. They were fouls by the rule book, but ironically, no whistles ensued. Whether that was a concerted effort by the referees to mitigate the “foul-hunting” the Rockets are accused of or simply a by-product of their specific sensibilities, it disrupted Houston’s strategy. On the final major possession of the game, both Harden and Paul were involved in contact situations with different Warriors, but there were no whistles. Paul got his second technical for his reaction to the no-call, which may have included contact with an official, and was thrown out. The Warriors didn’t just grind out a tough win; they ended up beating a frustrated Rockets team that, at least for one game, was undone by their own method.

Loser: Clint Capela

Put Capela on a milk carton. Or maybe just keep on him on the bench. Capela not only disappeared in Game 1, but made mistake after crucial mistake in a game where the Rockets could have used just an ounce more from their resident big. Capela’s first field goal—off a lob pass from Harden—did not come until halfway through the third quarter. He finished with just four points and six rebounds and was a damning minus-17.

After having a coming-out party in last season’s playoffs, Capela looked flummoxed by the speed and the pace of the game. He couldn’t stay on the floor, and D’Antoni was forced to either play Nene as a more traditional center or go small with P.J. Tucker. Both options had their shortcomings. Nene was cooked from outside and on drives ...

... and while Tucker at the 5 did a relatively good job limiting Kevin Durant for most of the game, he finished with zero points on four shots. The lack of size also allowed Draymond Green to grab two crucial offensive rebounds down the stretch. The Rockets need Capela’s dynamic size, but he has to play better in order to even stay on the floor.

Winner: Kevin Durant

The Splash Brothers were both banged up coming into Game 1, and it showed. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson struggled to be their usual selves, combining to shoot 10-for-25 from the field and 5-for-15 from 3. They each had three turnovers and finished with fewer than 20 points. It wasn’t a banner performance for Golden State’s favorite sons. And so, like he has been doing for the past four games or so, Durant had to take over.

Sunday’s performance wasn’t the equivalent of the 50 he dropped on the Clippers in Game 6, but it was enough to edge out the Rockets. In very non-Warriors fashion—and because Houston seemed to want to force him and the rest of the team into midrange jumpers—Durant took only three 3s in the whole game and made just one. He made his killing in the midrange and got to the line 15 times. He finished with 35 points—his fifth straight game of 30 points or more. Through seven games in the playoffs, it feels like the Warriors are more vulnerable than in prior years. At the same time, it is starting to feel like Durant is more reliable than ever.

Game 1: Celtics 112, Bucks 90

Winner: Alfred Horford

Al Horford’s second last name is “Reynoso,” a surname passed down from a royal family in Spain which derives its meaning from the Spanish word for “king.” It’s safe to say that in Game 1 of the Celtics-Bucks, Horford lived up to his namesake. Coming into this series, Horford was set with the task of trying to stop Giannis Antetokounmpo. “Stop” is relative. If this season has taught us anything it’s that you don’t stop Giannis, you merely hope to contain him. But Horford did that and more. When Giannis tried to drive toward the rim, Horford was the immovable object that held ground against the unstoppable force. For most of the game, the Bucks’ best player was flummoxed. Only when Horford exited the game did Giannis finally attack the rim successfully.

The Celtics defense, with Horford at the wheel, limited Giannis’s bread-and-butter game in the paint. Milwaukee scored only 26 points in the paint, and Horford himself finished with three blocks on Giannis:

It would have been perfectly fine if Horford had just focused on defense and barely made a dent on the other end. Instead, he filled up the stat sheet with 20 points, 11 boards, and three assists. Horford is a pillar on defense, and he became an invaluable conduit on offense. He took 16 shots and made half of them; he hit three of his 5 3s, and his midrange jumpers felt automatic and most of the time, they were also wide open. Giannis might be the best player in the NBA, but in Game 1, Horford was king of the court.

Loser: Giannis

Earth to Giannis—the playoffs, the real ones, have begun. The league’s presumptive MVP mopped the floor with the lowly Pistons in Round 1. But the Celtics are not the Pistons, and Giannis found that out quickly. Less than five minutes into the game, Boston forced Giannis into a tough midrange jumper that he missed, and when he tried to drive to the rim on the next possession, he was blocked. Giannis also discovered he wasn’t going to be getting the same calls against more star power. Time after time, his Eurosteps were halted and there was no whistle to save him.

Boston made Giannis uncomfortable and therefore threw the whole Bucks unit out of whack. (If you’d like a Ringer-appropriate analogy for what happened, here you go.) The Bucks were out of sync for most of the game. They couldn’t get out in transition, and Giannis couldn’t shake them out of the rut because he was the source of the problem

Giannis shot 7-for-21; he made only four 2-point shots and had to resort to working from the outside. He did make three 3s, but the fact that he was willingly taking them felt like a sign that even he recognized he couldn’t get as close to the rim as he’d like. He finished with a team-high 22 points and a team-worst minus-24. That summarized the game perfectly: Giannis has the most individual talent on the Bucks, but if he’s made even half-human, everything crumbles.

Winner: Playoff Brad Stevens

Welp. As the Celtics navigated a rocky regular season, there were whispers that Stevens might not be capable of coaching a superstar-led team. If there is talent but no cohesion, isn’t that on the coach? Maybe Stevens was waiting for the playoffs to reveal all his cards. The Pacers in Round 1 were an aperitif; Giannis and the Bucks were the main course.

Stevens devised a perfect plan for Game 1, by not just using Horford to bother Giannis, but throwing double-teams at him, too. The strategy exposed Milwaukee’s biggest holes. One of those is the absence of Malcolm Brogdon, who may I remind you, put together a 50/40/90 season and is perhaps the Bucks’ best shooter other than Khris Middleton. Brogdon is also a playmaker who brings some form of guidance when Giannis doesn’t have the ball. Brogdon’s absence forced Mike Budenholzer to play Pat Connaughton 24 minutes; Eric Bledsoe, Sterling Brown, and Connaughton shot 4-for-22 from the field and 2-for-14 from 3 to combine for 14 points. Ersan llyasova went 0-for-5 from deep, too. Stevens’s strategy was to put Giannis in tough situations, make him into a passer, and let the Bucks’ so-called shooters surrounding him shoot. In the second quarter, Nikola Mirotic made three 3s and for a second, it looked like the plan could backfire. But the Bucks ended up shooting only 33 percent from deep. Point, Stevens.