I just returned from an impromptu stay in Houston, Texas. What was supposed to be a one-hour layover turned into an overnight stay thanks to deadly flash flooding in the area (and could've been more had I not been lucky enough to get another flight the next day). Entire swaths of interstate highway lay under several feet of water, power and networks were down all over, and flight plans were ruined.
Much more tragically, several people died, and thousands of people lost cars, homes and property.
It's important to keep in mind that as much as Warriors fans love to hate Clutch City, the Houston area and its people absolutely deserve our love and support at this time.
It's also important to remember why the Rockets needed this game for reasons that are bigger than a mere playoff series.
The Houston Rockets took off from the opening tip with a level of energy and effort they haven't known since last season's Western Conference Finals. It began with a concerted effort to get Dwight Howard involved, and the big man delivered. He was active on both ends of the court, particularly on defense where he reminded the Dubs that he can still jump to contest shots, and will when he wants to.
The Rox lead by 13 after one quarter, putting up 31 points on the defending champions in the process. Despite the absence of Stephen Curry, the presumptive MVP would not have made a difference defensively. The Rockets simply wanted to win every possession, and fought to make it happen.
Houston dominated the glass despite active (if unfocused) play from Festus Ezeli, and kind of terrible play from Andrew Bogut. The Rockets enjoyed a 30-20 first half rebounding advantage, which gave the hometown underdogs extra possessions to score, despite poor shooting accuracy.
Bogut's performance was especially distressful. After years of watching the Aussie irritate, provoke and downright outplay Dwight Howard, tonight's game was a painful step back. After two quick fouls, Bogut spent the rest of his playing time pretending to be a folding chair. The kind of folding chair that big men prospects work out against in draft camps (Hint: the chair doesn't win).
The Warriors were unable to keep James Harden away from the charity stripe, as they had done for six of eight quarters coming into game three. The Beard was 5-of-6 from the free throw line, giving him 17 points despite 5-of-12 shooting at the half. The Swag Champ finished with 35 points, nine assists and eight rebounds.
The Dubs didn't get the great performance they needed from either all-stars Draymond Green or Klay Thompson. The former was surprisingly invisible on both sides of the ball, finishing with one point four turnovers. And the latter struggled to get scoring against Trevor Ariza, who did a terrific job of shadowing Thompson all game.
Late in the second quarter, the Warriors started to find an advantage. Thanks to Marreese Speights (22 points on 7-of-11 shooting), the Warriors found the next Splash Brother up to support the offense. Once Mo Buckets entered the game, the tide of the game turned in Golden State's favor ever-so-slightly. Not only was he able to help spread the floor (much as Stephen Curry does), but his presence sent the ineffective Bogut and Ezeli to the bench -- a win in itself.
Despite everything the Rockets brought in the first half, the Warriors' late second quarter push made a game of it. At the half, the teams were both shooting at 40% from the field. The Warriors were outscoring the Rockets 15-4 on points off turnovers and turnovers were dead even at nine. And despite all of the open looks from three (an obvious problem), Houston wasn't connecting. This gave Golden State the window it needed to make a game of it, 48-55.
The Warriors looked much better to begin the second half, as their defense swarmed every possession. However, their jump shots stubbornly refused to go in. The lead would hover between 10 and 12 points for the majority of the third period, as the Rockets made just enough good plays to maintain the lead.
However, there were minor improvements for the Dubs. Draymond Green looked much more active, offensively and defensively. While he wasn't at his very best, he chipped in with a winning third quarter effort. Klay Thompson, however, remained a volume scorer. His 17 points on 7-of-16 shooting were hardly what he had in mind during the pre-game warm ups.
Most importantly, Speights was joined by Shaun Livingston, who turned in one of the best performances of his Warriors career. The gigantic point guard added 16 points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals (against just one turnover) to help the Warriors keep pace with the Rockets.
After three quarters, the Rockets lead was all the way down to six points, and early in the fourth quarter, the lead dropped all the way to one. Then Klay and Draymond checked back in for the stretch run.
The Warriors had become the defensive juggernaut that most pundits forgot they could be. Unfortunately, their offense still couldn't match their awesome effort. Quality ball movement found open look after open look, yet nearly every attempt clanked off iron.
With two minutes left, the Warriors once again reduced the lead to one point. And for six non-consecutive possessions, the Dubs would try and fail to take the lead (only to see the Rockets push the advantage the other direction). Then, where Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and others failed: Ian Clark succeeded. The much-maligned backup point guard drove on a broken play and nailed a floater to make it 94-93 Warriors -- their first lead since 2-0. A 17-point comeback, in the playoffs, on the road, without the best player alive.
But with 41 seconds left, the Warriors were called for a foul under their own basket, giving the Rockets' Michael Beasley two free throws. He made both attempts, giving the Rockets a one point advantage. And despite three additional possessions and an incredibly clutch steal to take a super-late lead, the Warriors could not make a game winning shot. Final score: 97-96.
And that would be the story of the night. The Warriors squandered an impressive defensive performance, and couldn't muster enough points to get the team a road win. Sub-25% three point shooting won't win many playoff games for the blue and gold. Despite quality offensive possessions, the shots just didn't fall in Houston. Golden State will have to either hope for better luck, or the return of a certain league scoring champion, to get a better result next game.
- Shaun Livingston continues to be the biggest "why in the heck didn't we see that coming?" player of the half-decade, at least. For a minimal investment, pretty much anyone could have had an elite role player with a great attitude and an impossible 6'7" point guard frame.
- Ian Clark had nine fourth quarter points. Ian Clark had nine fourth quarter points. You don't develop guys by never playing them ever ever ever. Ian Clark had nine fourth quarter points.
- Andre Iguodala defended James Harden as well as I've ever seen anyone defend an MVP candidate. He absolutely smothered Harden from beyond the three point line, simultaneously avoiding fouls, but strongly contesting anything.
- In the fourth quarter, CSN Bay Area ran a graphic, reporting that Harrison Barnes, Thompson and Green were shooting just 34% through three games. Considering they have played all but two quarters without the reigning MVP, that's not surprising: Stephen Curry's supermassive-black-hole-like gravity well frees up shooters from the basketball rim out to the Milky Way galactic rim.
- Funny: for all of Houston's talk about the Warriors shoving guys in the back...that described Patrick Beverly to a tee. He had two arms extended into either Barnes, Thompson or Livingston's back over and over, whether on rebounding attempts or layups. Just saying: this stuff all cuts both ways.
- The Warriors appeared to pathetically resort to Hack-a-Howard with just over three minutes left in the fourth quarter. However, they were actually just fouling Howard when he got the ball, and the referees simply assumed he was taking an 80-foot shooting motion. Obviously.
The series takes another extended break before game four in Houston, Sunday afternoon on ABC...