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Winners and Losers: James Harden Is a Meme Now, and Not in a Good Way

The Warriors’ glue guys took advantage of a less-than-full-strength Harden to win Game 2. Plus: The Bucks shot the Celtics out of the gym, and Kyrie Irving’s off night doomed the C’s chances of taking a series lead back to Boston.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Kyrie and the Celtics couldn’t overcome a 3-point heat wave from the Bucks, and the Rockets couldn’t overcome an eye injury to James Harden. Here are the winners and losers from Tuesday’s second-round NBA playoff action.

Game 2: Warriors 115, Rockets 109

Winners: The Warriors’ Glue Guys

Andre Iguodala showed his age throughout the regular season. During the 82-game journey, the 35-year-old’s play fluctuated from average to bad to half decent, and—for more than a couple of seasons now—it’s made him look like he should be on his way to retirement. Then the playoffs come, and Iguodala takes a bath in the fountain of youth and becomes the player who somehow won Finals MVP in 2015. He gave another turn-back-the-clock performance in Game 2 of Rockets-Warriors: He was a team-high plus-17, and he added 16 points, four assists, and five rebounds. Three of those were offensive boards, which contributed to the Warriors’ total of 15—eight more than the Rockets. That brings us to glue guy no. 2.

Draymond Green may feel disrespected by the “glue guy” branding, but for a second straight game, he did all the things a supporting cast member should do—and at an elite level. His five offensive rebounds created extra shots for Kevin Durant, who had another impressive performance, scoring 29 points on 22 shots. Green was seemingly omnipresent, scrambling for loose balls, defending inside and out, and grabbing 12 total boards—more than any other player on the floor. His seven assists also led all players and were highlighted by a couple of perfect lobs to a wide-open Iguodala. Glue guys unite.

In a game where the Rockets had the upper shooting hand (more on this in a bit), the Warriors’ grinders made the small plays that mattered most. Plus, in not-so-small plays, we got to see Iguodala add to his dunk tally, which now leads every other player in these playoffs. Not bad for a 35-year-old.

Loser: James Harden and His Red Eyes

Draymond Green stops at nothing when he’s fighting for a loose ball—even James Harden’s face. In the first quarter of Game 2, Green went for a rebound and struck Harden’s eye in the process, forcing the Rockets’ star to go into the locker room for treatment. Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said during his interview between the first and second quarters that Harden was bleeding from one of his eyes, and it was later confirmed that Harden had a left eyelid laceration. He returned to the game, but his bloodshot gaze said it all. Things clearly weren’t right, and even as Harden drove to the hoop or dished to his teammates, he blinked persistently and shielded his eyes from the arena lights.

By the end of the game, Harden’s red-tinted visage had been memed into oblivion, and though he did hit three 3s and scored 29 points, it was clearly not a normal game for him. Going up against the Warriors, every game is going to require a supernatural performance from Harden. And though 29 points is nothing to sneeze at, he took just 19 shots all night. Harden is the centerpiece of this offense, and 20 shots in a playoff game from him either speaks to bad management or just the fact that, you know, he had an eyelid laceration. If it hasn’t already become clear to Harden and Mike D’Antoni, Harden is going to need to override the way the Warriors have defended him (often with double teams) in order to put up his customary numbers. The system is what has gotten Houston this far, but unless Harden goes supernova, at this point it does not seem like anything the Rockets do will be enough against Golden State.

Loser: Making a Ton of 3s

Shooting 42.5 percent from 3 and 46.8 percent from the field and still taking an L has to be disheartening for the Rockets. Even with an optically impaired Harden, Houston was able to stay in the game—Golden State’s biggest lead of the night was 15 points—but couldn’t get over the hump. No other Rockets player, in Harden’s absence or even when he returned, did enough to steal the game in Oakland.

Chris Paul had a chance to play hero late when a wide-open 3 with 51 seconds left could have cut the lead to three points and given the Rockets a chance. The shot rattled out, and Paul finished 6-of-14 and 2-of-7 from 3. Five Houston players scored in the teens, but unlike in Game 1 when Eric Gordon finished with 27 points, no part of the Rockets’ supporting cast seemed to want to leave their imprint on a must-win game (Iman Shumpert and Danuel House Jr. were a combined 0-for-6). Some of that falls on their lack of second-chance opportunities—they grabbed eight fewer offensive boards than the Warriors and thus took 14 fewer shots—but some of that was also due to the 17 turnovers they gave away. Harden had six; Paul had four; Gordon had three, as did Austin Rivers.

The Rockets already have little margin for error in this series—Paul knows this as well as anyone. But through two games, it’s been little things that have buried them (they’ve lost both games by a combined 10 points). Now, they’re heading back to Houston down 2-0 in the series; under Steve Kerr, the Warriors are 11-1 in series in which they’ve won the first two contests. Good luck with that lead.

Game 2: Bucks 123, Celtics 102

Winner: The Bucks’ Shooters

Mike Budenholzer has crafted a very good recipe for success for Milwaukee’s offense: Let Giannis Antetokounmpo work inside and surround him with shooters who can drain shots off his kick-out passes. But if the shots don’t fall—like they didn’t in the Bucks’ 112-90 Game 1 loss—then the defense collapses around Giannis, he doesn’t get any space to work, and the Bucks offense turns into an incoherent mess. In short: Take out the shooting and it’s like trying to make chocolate chip cookies without … chocolate chips.

The difference in Game 2 was Khris Middleton, who made 10 of his 18 shots, including seven of his 10 3-point attempts. If Giannis is the battering ram that bludgeons teams with overpowering greatness, then Middleton is the key that unlocks Milwaukee’s next level. When he’s on, the Bucks don’t have to rely on Giannis playing at an MVP level to win—and after the team shot just 33 percent from 3 in Game 1, Middleton’s fire from beyond the arc was much needed.

It wasn’t just Middleton who decided to wake up. Eric Bledsoe made three of his five 3-point attempts, Brook Lopez added three more, and George Hill sank a pair as well. Milwaukee shot a scalding 42.6 percent from deep, which is a significant number for more than one reason. It’s a stellar percentage, sure, but it’s also exactly what Malcolm Brogdon—one of the team’s best shooters—shot from long range throughout the regular season. Brogdon has missed the last 19 games with a torn plantar fascia in his right foot, but replicating the level of efficiency he would normally provide gave the Bucks a boost in his absence, and allowed Giannis to do what he does best—and even make two shots from deep himself.

Winner: Giannis’s Confidence

Al Horford likely occupied Giannis’s nightmares after the Celtics’ big man stumped the Bucks’ star in Game 1, and when Giannis struggled to get going in the first quarter of Game 2, going 0-for-3 from the field, it looked like Horford was still in his head. But Giannis quickly put that to rest. Over the next three quarters, he scored 24 points and got to the line 10 times for eight made free throws. Neither Horford nor any other Celtic had an answer for him, and even though Boston’s strategy was clearly to play off Giannis around the 3-point arc and let him shoot 3s, he made them pay there as well:

The shimmy felt like more than just a celebration for one shot. It also seemed like Giannis was acknowledging that his confidence was back after being mostly stifled through the first five quarters of the series. As the game slowed down for him, the joy returned, and his impact was felt once again. The Bucks outscored the Celtics 39-18 in the third quarter, and Giannis finished with 29 points on 16 shots; he didn’t even need to play more than 31 minutes to do it. He also added 10 rebounds, four assists, and two steals. “We got an ass-whooping Game 1,” Giannis said postgame. In Game 2, he proved that you can only contain an MVP-caliber player for so long.

Loser: Kyrie Irving

Usually when Irving shoots a midrange fadeaway jumper that hangs in the air for what feels like an eternity before dropping in, his effort is seen as part of his artistry—a display of the kind of shot-making that sets him apart. But on an off night, those heaves and tough shots look more like he’s forcing the issue. That’s what happened Tuesday night in Milwaukee, when Irving shot 4-of-18 from the field and 1-of-5 from 3. He finished with nine total points and was a minus-19 in 31 minutes. The Celtics managed to overcome that performance for the first two quarters and kept the game close—they trailed by just four at halftime—but once the Bucks offense exploded in the third, there was no keeping up. Marcus Morris’s team-leading 17 points are not going to cut it against that offense when it’s rolling.

Irving wasn’t just cold; he never looked in tune with the pace of the game or his teammates. If Game 1 showed how high the Celtics’ ceiling could be when their talent was clicking perfectly with their system, then Game 2 was proof of what had been evident for most of the regular season: This team has some kinks it hasn’t yet worked out. Irving’s scoring paces Boston, and it becomes especially crucial when the Bucks defense uses its length and athleticism to stifle the Celtics’ wings. Of note: Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward combined to go 3-of-15 from the field. Irving wasn’t the only one who struggled. But when you’re the self-proclaimed leader of the team and the one player whose superstar-level handles and playmaking can transcend most defenses, the burden inevitably falls on you. Even Irving can see that.