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Winners and Losers: James Harden Has the Warriors on Their Heels

Plus: Giannis is consuming the world, and Gordon Hayward is disappearing

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The good, the bad, and the points in the paint from Monday’s Game 4s.

Game 4: Rockets 112, Warriors 108

Winner: James Harden, Who Is Climbing the Star Rankings Before Our Eyes

When you’re trying to predict a series, if all else fails, pick the team with the best player. It’s not foolproof, but it’s worked so far this postseason. (Assuming you’d take Damian Lillard over shoulder-injury Paul George.) But I’m not sure the theory holds with the Rockets-Warriors series, which features four of the league’s past five MVPs.

If you’re ranking the players involved in the series, Kevin Durant is first. Even before Game 1 began, this was true, and through Game 4, it’s remained that way. Durant hasn’t only been the best player in the series, he’s been the best player of the postseason by such a margin that many (read: resistant LeBron fans) are beginning to admit he’s the best player in the league right now.

Second place was open for debate. James Harden followed his 2017-18 MVP season with an even-better 2018-19 campaign, staking his claim for the runner-up spot. Taking Steph Curry above Harden as the second-best player of the series entering Game 1 would’ve been acceptable, too, though; Curry’s had a couple MVPs and historic seasons of his own.

But four games in, with the series tied 2-2, those rankings are starting to take shape. Durant’s remained at the top, but Harden’s utter dominance—compared to Curry’s lemons—is solidifying his case for taking a clear second. In Game 4, Harden finished with a game-high 38 points, tied for a game-high 10 boards, and added four assists and two blocks. Harden was the connective tissue for Houston’s many runs, hitting his iconic pullup 3s at a pace no Warrior could match and getting the best of one of the league’s top defenses:

Heroes are made in the fourth quarter, and heroic moments factor into those aforementioned rankings. But entering the third, it seemed like Harden had already said his piece: He had the same number of made 3s (three) as the entire Warriors squad on nearly half the attempts (seven to Golden State’s 13). In a game where Durant scored 34 points and Curry 30, Harden was the authority.

Loser: Steph Curry’s Defensive Hands

Take Chris Paul or Draymond Green anywhere—your local Y, a PTA meeting, the line at the deli—and it could get chippy. Combine that with Harden’s ability to gets fouls and the Warriors’ inability to accept the legitimacy of said foul calls, and Houston–Golden State was destined to be the most tense series of the postseason.

The most notable incident so far came when a poke from Draymond did enough damage to Harden’s eye that he’s still scaring children everywhere. And then, throughout the series, there have been the flops:

After the leaking of the Morey Report, I was nervous this series would turn into a referendum on refereeing. But for the most part, complaints about officiating from Houston have been a sideshow since Game 1. The most surprising officiating-adjacent story line out of Rockets-Warriors concerns Golden State’s foul trouble, Curry’s specifically.

Curry’s been in perpetual foul trouble all playoffs. In games 1, 2, and 4 against the Clippers in the first round, Curry notched four fouls; in Game 3, he had five. After the fourth straight game with four or more, Steve Kerr asked Curry where his mom, Sonya, was, only to say to her “Tell him not to foul anymore.” It worked for the final two games against Los Angeles, but the foul troubles returned against the Rockets: Curry finished with five fouls in games 1 through 3, and had three not two minutes out of halftime in Game 4.

Curry managed to not to pick up a fourth foul on Monday night for the first time in the series. The Rockets’ isolation-heavy style brings out the worst in defenders, especially with Harden—who drew the most fouls in the league this season—running the show. Curry is the least skilled defender in the Hamptons Five lineup and the most susceptible to Houston’s ability to draw tricky fouls, so it’s no surprise that this is happening. Curry’s poor shooting (4-for-14 on Monday from deep) has been a louder narrative so far this postseason, but his handsiness might end up being just as damaging.

Game 4: Bucks 113, Celtics 101

Winner: Giannis, Despite It All

The correct response to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 39-point performance in Game 4 is to gush over it, and to write odes to his rim protection and poems about his 26 points in the paint. Do I even have to say that’s a game high? It seemed, as the game went on, Boston just kind of gave up on contesting him in the lane. And can you blame them?

Giannis’s night ended with the aforementioned 39 points alongside 16 rebounds, four assists, a steal, and a block. It’s impossible for any Celtic—perhaps anyone on the planet—to outstride Giannis. Nobody can get above the rim like he can, and nobody has his 7-foot-3 wingspan. Running, jumping, standing, whatever—Giannis is superior. But to fully understand his dominance on Monday, we also have to look at his weaknesses.

There aren’t many. He is an inadequate 3-point shooter, though not for a lack of trying: During the regular season, Giannis shot 25.6 percent on 2.8 attempts per game. But in the playoffs, those numbers have hiked to an impressive 34.4 percent on four attempts per game. In Game 4, Giannis shot the highest percentage from behind the arc of all Bucks who took more than two 3s, and went 2-for-5.

Another flaw: He can rack up fouls quickly. In these playoffs, Giannis has finished two games with four fouls, and two with five. (He had four in Game 4, though Milwaukee went on a 21-13 run while he sat for the majority of the third quarter. Khris Middleton, who also had four fouls, was also benched for six of those minutes. Go Bucks role players!) On Monday, Giannis didn’t foul again after he returned to the game to start the fourth.

And finally, he’s LeBron-like from the candy stripe (probably the only time an on-court LeBron comparison isn’t a compliment): Giannis hit 72.9 percent of his free throws in the regular season. That’s a tough break for Milwaukee since Antetokounmpo takes way more free throws than anybody else on the team. Giannis takes 9.5 free throws a game, and Middleton is second with 3.4. That’s why it’s important Giannis gets to the line as much as possible: In Game 5, he went 7-for-10. In the series, he’s drawn so many fouls that Kyrie Irving has started crying, um, foul.

Not only did Giannis give Boston all his wrath to push the series 3-1, he minimized his weaknesses. That’s the work of somebody ready for the conference finals.

Winner: The 2017-18 Cavs

George Hill’s time as a starter in this league ended a couple of years ago, though he continued, as late as last year with Cleveland, to get starter minutes. Hill has since evolved to the Sixth Man stage of his career. Shall we call it the Andre Iguodala adaptation? That may be a tad hyperbolic; it’s hard to see any Finals MVPs in Hill’s future, but he’s already proved his worth to Mike Budenholzer, especially in the Boston series, by dropping 21 points in Game 3 and 15 in Game 4. The latter is more than any Buck besides Giannis and more than the entire Celtics bench.

Hill is part of a larger, strange phenomenon this postseason. He’s joined by Portland’s Rodney Hood and Houston’s Iman Shumpert as 2017-18 Cavs who looked like trash in Cleveland and are now playing crucial roles in the 2019 playoffs that their former leader LeBron James missed entirely. I’ve often said Cleveland is a developmental franchise on par with San Antonio.

Loser: Gordon Hayward’s Minutes

Boston can’t afford to give major minutes to someone who produces nothing. And in this series, as cruel as it may sound, “nothing” describes Hayward’s on-court production: In 27 minutes Monday, he went 1-for-5 from the field with two points, three rebounds, a block, and a turnover. During the past three games, Hayward has averaged 30 minutes per game with a plus-minus of minus-49, 22.2 percent shooting from the field, and 17 total points.

Brad Stevens might not feel he has many other options. But for a coach who uses his men so fluidly at the wing despite their true position, it’s becoming inexcusable to not at least try his other options, even if that means going super small with three guards, or playing Aron Baynes (seven minutes in Game 4) fully knowing he’d wind up guarding the deep ball. At this point, any shift to the lineup is worthwhile.