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How the Rockets Got Their Groove Back

This second-round series against the Warriors started off on a couple of rocky notes for Houston, but in games 3 and 4, James Harden and Co. have managed to rein in Golden State. How have they done it?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

It has been an unexpected treat to get this Warriors-Rockets matchup early in the NBA playoffs. The stakes of the series have felt just as big as they did in last season’s conference finals, and the games have been just as good. Watching both squads’ shot-making and counterpunching, it feels like we are witnessing the two best teams in the league. Houston wanted another shot at the champions, and they’re getting it. Now they have responded to being down 2-0 by not lying down, instead evening up the most anticipated series of the season. How did they do it?

Regular-Season Harden Is Back

If the Rockets go on to win this series, I will look back at the first possession of Game 4’s fourth quarter as a sign of what was to come. On that play, James Harden, who was shadowed by Klay Thompson, started the sequence by slowly dribbling along the right wing. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Harden executed a behind-the-back move that left Thompson grasping at air. Harden could have pulled up for the open midrange jumper, but instead he retreated toward the 3-point line and took his time—even as Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala closed in. A lightning-fast inside-out dribble had the defenders crashing into each other, which left Harden a clear path to the hoop for an easy floater. It was a display of total control, a mastery of both time and space, which he one-upped just a minute later. Following a P.J. Tucker screen, Harden dribbled toward two Warriors. But this time, he turned his back to the basket as a misdirection, then did a 180 with his dribble and finished with a shifty Eurostep and a left-handed hook shot. Neither of those plays seemed to have been planned out, but it didn’t matter. Harden’s improv was effective.

When Harden is on, it’s like watching someone play in a time zone that he alone controls. He instinctively knows when to pause, slow down, speed up, and attack. He plays like the queen on a chessboard surrounded by pawns, with the full confidence that he can go anywhere and do anything—and no one else can match his moves. Games 3 and 4 of the Rockets-Warriors series have shown this. Harden scored 41 and 38 points, respectively, in those contests, while shooting 44 percent from the field and 36 percent from 3—not exactly stunning figures. But the volume of his shots (61 attempts in both games combined) has been indicative of the chances he’s getting. The only thing that’s successfully slowed him down was a hand to his left eye (which is still colored with a haunting shade of red). Outside of that, Golden State hasn’t been able to stop him from scoring. Right now he’s playing like regular-season Harden, but with the playoffs’ higher stakes hanging over his head. So far, he’s delivered. And it’s been exactly what the Rockets needed to even up the series.

Two Letters, One Word: P.J.

There are only three things in the world (that we know of) that Tucker attacks with unbridled ferocity: his pregame fits, pancakes, and rebounds.

Tucker is a stocky 6-foot-6 forward who uses every ounce of his 245 pounds to play like a player twice his size—with an unparalleled effort level to match. Perhaps no other NBA player has been a more fitting example of the word thicc—or, as Steve Kerr more diplomatically put it after Monday night’s game: “They’ve got a lot of middle linebackers on that team. We’re more like volleyball players.”

Yes, Tucker is doing his best Mike Singletary impression and outmuscling the Warriors to seemingly every loose ball, whether on the ground or high in the air. By sheer force of will, Tucker has turned himself into a ball magnet. It’s like he’s perpetually attached to the basket, pulling rebounds down and getting Harden extra possessions, which, as mentioned above, has been imperative given Houston’s modus operandi. It doesn’t matter that Tucker has scored a combined 37 points in four games in this series—he’s still outrebounding every player not named Draymond Green. In Game 4, Tucker grabbed 10 boards, including five on the offensive end. He also had a couple of tipped balls that didn’t count as rebounds but did turn into second-chance points for Houston.

As Clint Capela has struggled at times in this series, Tucker has become a big man by default—and that has turned the tide of the series. With him down low, the Rockets have been able to counter the Warriors’ athletic Hamptons Five lineup with a twist of their own: the “Tuckwagon” lineup, which puts Tucker at center as Houston goes small. It’s an unconventional approach, but surrounding Tucker with shooters has allowed the Rockets to up their offensive versatility, all while keeping the edge in physicality. This squad is built for war as much as it is built for efficiency. And in the past two games, they’ve been able to counter the Warriors’ trump card:

It’s impossible not to credit Tucker for having a hand—multiple hands, really—in all of this. Pancakes, rebounds, and wins. It’s no wonder Tucker is feeling himself enough to pull off something like this.

The Rockets’ Power Reserves

The total score in the Rockets-Warriors series may be a near-even 448-447 in Houston’s favor, but the disparity in the teams’ bench scoring might as well be as vast as the Pacific Ocean. Through four games, the Rockets reserves have outscored the Warriors reserves 76-42. Without DeMarcus Cousins (who went down with a partially torn quadriceps muscle at the start of the playoffs), the Warriors’ lack of depth has been exposed—particularly at center, where Kevon Looney has played in spurts, and where Andre Iguodala has seen most of the action as part of the Hamptons Five lineup that Kerr is using far more in this series. Not having Iguodala off the bench has killed the impact of the Warriors’ second unit, as Shaun Livingston has disappeared and neither Alfonzo McKinnie nor Jonas Jerebko is anything close to reliable.

On the flip side, the Rockets bench is flourishing. Credit Austin Rivers, who has been playing starter-level minutes in this series and has done a little bit of everything, for scoring 32 points in the past three games. Houston is plus-11.7 when Rivers is on the floor this series, which is impressive given that he sat out Game 1 with an illness. Also credit Iman Shumpert, who has made five out of his past nine shots (four 3s) after starting the series 1-for-5. Even Nene and Gerald Green have had their moments in the limelight, though the former has played fewer and fewer minutes as this series has progressed. Sure, the rotations get shorter in the playoffs, but for Golden State, a lack of strong backup options (i.e., seventh and eighth men) hasn’t just hurt on the scoreboard—it has also caused a minutes pileup for the starters. Kevin Durant, for example, is averaging 45 minutes a game in this series. This is just the second round, so if the Warriors starters are getting tired, it could affect them not only now but later should they advance.

Defending the Splash Brothers

“We’ve played all kinds of different teams and everybody tries to be physical with us, because they should,” Kerr said after Game 4. “That’s the best way to try to beat us. Houston is very physical.”

Even in defeat, the Warriors are so aware of how good they are, how difficult they are to take down, that they can freely point out the avenues teams could use to beat them. It’s like Usain Bolt giving me a three-second head start in a 100-meter race knowing full well that he’ll catch up to me before I cross the finish line. But really, who can blame them? It’s not like the Warriors haven’t earned the ability to almost taunt teams with their talent. As Kerr said, they know what they have to do … and if they do it, nobody will beat them.

But earning points right now appears to be tougher than ever for the Warriors, thanks to the Rockets’ physical play. They’ve successfully thrown the Warriors off their rhythm and, at times, stifled their ball movement. Houston upped its intensity in Game 3 and against on Monday night in Game 4, winning both to even the series. Durant, Curry, and Thompson have felt the brunt of that, and while the former two are still getting their points—Durant finished with 34, Curry with 30 in Game 4—Thompson has struggled, shooting 5-for-15 from the field and 1-for-6 from 3 on Monday. And even Curry’s 30 wasn’t his usual 30—he took 14 3s and made only four of them. On the series, the Splash Brothers have shot a combined 31.9 percent from deep.

Durant may still be getting his, but Houston can live with that if Tucker continues to make him work for it and the team as a whole can slow down Thompson and Curry—which is a big “if.” Game 4 wasn’t so much a lesson in containment as it was defined by misses—the Rockets gave the Warriors plenty of open looks, including two at the end for Curry and Durant that could have tied the game. Even the biggest Rockets optimists can acknowledge that the Warriors won’t miss those shots forever.

Though the series is tied, there’s still so much Houston needs to do to have a chance at knocking the juggernaut off its pedestal. It’s a three-game series now, and while the Rockets have landed a couple of punches, Golden State still has the upper hand.