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Analysis: Harden, Rockets come back from down 20, hand Warriors stunning overtime loss

Because of poor decision making and stagnant offensive play, the Warriors throw away a near-certain win against the Rockets and Harden (who scored 11 of his 44 points in the extra frame).

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Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

After a brief two-game road trip, the Warriors were back at Oracle Arena on Thursday night for a rematch of the 2018 Western Conference Finals with the Houston Rockets in town. Winners of 5 straight and 10 of their last 11, the Rockets had effectively rebounded from their slow start to the season and are playing like the team that earned the top seed in the Western Conference last season.

This game could not have started any better for the Warriors, as they shot 63.6% from the field in their first half on their way to a 17-point halftime lead, poised to get a much-needed blowout win against a tough opponent. The Warriors’ lead grew to 20 points early in the third quarter before the Rockets mounted one impressive second-half comeback. The Rockets pushed the game into overtime, stealing the game in the extra frame on a ridiculous three-pointer as they handed the Warriors a humbling 135-134 loss.

Harden ignites the Rockets yet again

As much as it pains me to do this, I have to start by giving James Harden a ton of credit for his performance that got his team this win. Harden continued his run of stellar play against the defending champs, a team that has given him plenty of trouble over the past 5 seasons. On Thursday night, Harden scored 44 points, his fifth-straight game with 40+ points. Harden attempted 23 three-pointers, making 10 of them. One of those long-distance makes was the insane game-winner, which Harden hit with just a second to go in overtime.

The funny (or perhaps terrifying) thing is that the Warriors did a good job defending Harden... well, about as good as a team can do against the defending MVP. Throwing different looks and defenders at him, they made Harden into a high-volume shooter and limited him to just nine free throws (he made eight of them). The Warriors did just about everything that you’re supposed to do against Harden and yet he still burned them.

In addition to those 44 points, Harden also had 15 assists and 10 rebounds, his second-consecutive triple-double. Make no mistake about it, Harden is very much a part of the MVP conversation again this season. Thursday night’s performance confirmed this.

Poor decisions doom the Warriors

As is often the case in their losses, the Warriors messed around far too much, settling into some poor decision making that cost them the game. Though both Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant were big factors in the Warriors jumping out to that 20-point lead, they both made mistakes along the way that allowed the Rockets to come back and, ultimately, get the win.

Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors
There were some big shots from Curry but ultimately he didn’t do enough to make sure the Warriors held on for the win.
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Turnovers were a problem yet again, especially for Curry. All five of Curry’s turnovers came in the first half, which prevented the Warriors from really taking advantage of their great shooting and getting a lead that even the hot-shooting Rockets couldn’t overcome.

Curry was the highest-scoring Warrior player on Thursday night, finishing the game with 35 points Curry scored 7 points in the overtime period, including this three-pointer that gave the Warriors a brief four-point advantage.

Curry went 5/15 from three-point range against the Rockets, with one of those misses from long distance coming with the Warriors up three and just under a minute to go in regulation. It was definitely an instance where Curry was looking for the coup de grace and that led him to take a lower-quality shot.

Curry addressed this in his postgame comments:

Even more than Curry, Durant took some particularly poor shots in the fourth quarter of Thursday night’s game. Attempting field goals far too early in the shot clock, going into isolation mode when being defending by the Rockets’ best defensive player in P.J. Tucker, it was a rough stretch for the two-time Finals MVP and ended up costing them the game.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors
After a strong first half, Durant reverted to the less-than-stellar aspects of his game as the Warriors let the game slip through their fingers.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Durant did finish the game with 26 points and 7 rebounds, making baskets in the fourth quarter and overtime to counter whatever the Rockets did and keeping the Warriors in the game. But even though he converted, the looks Durant got were not the best ones and he might have been better served getting the ball to someone else.

What’s the next move?

The Rockets are a team the Warriors should attack with Curry more than Durant. To be certain, there are teams where Durant should be the focal point of the Warriors’ offense. But over the past year plus, it has become clear that Curry thrives against the Rockets while Durant can struggle with what they throw at him. Thus seeing the Warriors turn to Durant in these most crucial moments can be frustrating, even for someone who loves Durant’s game and watching him play.

Some of this might be on Durant, who needs to recognize that he’s not the best option at times and should get the ball to Curry or Klay Thompson (who scored 26 points as well and went 4/8 from three-point range).

It also might be an issue of coaching and play calling. Perhaps Steve Kerr isn’t recognizing that he really needs to put the ball in Curry’s hands against this Rockets team and let him go. This also might be the result of the way Kerr staggers Curry and Durant, preventing them from getting and then keeping any sustained chemistry on the court that would allow them to more effectively attack this Rockets team.

I’m not one who believes in overreacting to one game that, though the Warriors let that big lead slip away, featured its fair share of remarkably lucky bounces for the Rockets. With that said, I think Kerr might want to reconsider how he uses Curry and Durant together and begin to feel more comfortable letting Curry do his thing when the matchup is right.

Another good game from Looney

One bright spot for the Warriors was the play of Kevon Looney. The subject of a recent piece by Marcus Thompson II in The Athletic, Looney was the Warriors’ best player for long stretches of this game.

Looney scored 12 points in Thursday night’s overtime loss, all of them coming in the first half as he played an instrumental role in the Warriors jumping out to that big lead. Looney was also a monster on the offensive glass, grabbing 5 offensive rebounds while helping the Warriors score 21 second-chance points.

Houston Rockets v Golden State Warriors
Though his team let the game slip away, it was still a stellar performance from Kevon Looney on Thursday night.
Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

In addition to his early scoring, Looney played solid defense against the Rockets, holding his own when getting switched onto Harden. Looney also had this monster block early in the fourth quarter.

In many ways, the game turned (and the Rockets began to mount their comeback) when Looney picked up his fourth personal foul early in the third quarter and was forced to go to the bench, The Warriors were up by 15 points when Looney went out of the game but by the end of the third they would be up by just 6 as the Rockets outscored the Warriors 39-28 in that quarter.

Looney’s second-half foul trouble allowed Clint Capela to be much more of a force as he scored 13 of his 29 points and grabbed 6 of his 9 offensive rebounds in the second half. One wonders if the Warriors would have sustained their great play from the first half and earned the victory if Looney had been able to stay in the game.

The Warriors will look to put this loss behind them on Saturday night when they welcome the Sacramento Kings back to Oracle Arena.

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