It was halftime, and all was well and good. The Golden State Warriors had a 17-point lead, amid pregame fears of another dud of a showing by the defending champions in front of a national television audience. The fears were completely justified — of their 10 nationally televised games, they have won only 4 of them. The perception of the Warriors not being able to get up for the “important” games of the season was one that was slowly gaining steam, and it was a perception that the Warriors were eager to prove wrong.
James Harden — a sudden contender to win his second-straight MVP award — was on a recent tear, having scored at least 35 points and dishing out at least 5 assists in his last 8 games. As a result, the Houston Rockets posted a record of 10-1 during their last 11 games, skyrocketing their place in the Western Conference standings from 14th all the way to 4th. This amazing run was mostly placed on the broad shoulders of the reigning MVP, with good reason — the Rockets lost Chris Paul to another hamstring injury, and they were without one of their best role players in Eric Gordon due to a knee injury.
At halftime, Harden had scored 15 points on a less-than-ideal 4-of-13 shooting line (30.7 percent). What many expected to be a game filled with the Warriors falling for Harden’s shiftiness and crafty ways of drawing the referees’ whistles instead had the makings of a defensive masterclass.
The Warriors contain Harden in the first half
The gameplan on defending Harden was easy enough to formulate and read, but applying it and following it to a T was exponentially more difficult — under any circumstances, do not reach, as Harden is a master at using exposed limbs to his advantage; force him to his right, as he has a pronounced preference for going to his left; and finally, contest his threes as close as possible without falling into his landing space or shooting pocket.
A common theme in the clips above is the Warriors’ absolute discipline when Harden goes on one of his classic one-on-one isolation possessions. His step-back jumper is perhaps the deadliest offensive weapon in the NBA as of today, and defenders often fall into the trap of touching Harden while he is up in the air; the slightest hint of contact is enough for the referees to intervene. However, the different defenders that the Warriors place on Harden — including their resident “mismatch decoy” Kevon Looney and two of their regular bench contributors in Jonas Jerebko and Alfonzo McKinnie — find success in limiting the effectiveness of Harden’s shot.
The halftime buzzer sounded, and with a 70-53 lead, all the Warriors needed to do was to hold the fort by continuing to limit Harden and his supporting cast, as well as continuing to let their offense run amok on the Rockets’ sieve of a defense.
But the Warriors — like they have often done in more recent instances — took their foot off of the gas pedal, and shifted from gear 5 to gear 2. They allowed the Rockets to score 39 points, 24 of which came from the sudden explosion of 8 three-point shots made. As the fourth quarter began, what was once a comfortable double digit advantage became an 8-point lead that can easily be surmounted by an offensive juggernaut such as the Rockets.
The last five minutes of regulation
With approximately five minutes to go in the game — and Stephen Curry sitting down for his customary mid-fourth quarter rest — the only offensive options on the floor for the Warriors are Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. The wisdom of resting Curry during a crucial stretch of the game is highly debatable, but alas, the coaching staff is adamant about sticking to their chops.
In this sequence, the Warriors go to Durant to score and gain some separation from the Rockets, who have closed their deficit to a single point. Durant gets the ball on the right elbow and misses the jumper, but the ball bounces back to them for an offensive rebound, Durant drives inside to collapse the defense, but his attempted shot is stripped. Looney gets the ball, but his attempt to go up for the shot gets completely smothered.
On the other end, the Warriors are extremely fortunate to have come out of this possession without a single point from the Rockets. They allow two offensive boards, allowing the Rockets to have three opportunities at scoring a three. All three attempts miss, which eventually lead into a Thompson mid-range shot that stretches the Warriors’ lead to three.
The Warriors miss their chance to gain further separation when a Thompson isolation results in a step-back mid-range shot that misses. The shot selection from Thompson here is questionable — the fact that the rest of the players on the floor are standing still and are not moving doesn’t help matters. Furthermore, Thompson misses Durant on the weak side, who has a favorable position against a much smaller defender in Austin Rivers. On the other end, the Rockets simplify things by going to their best offensive player, and as expected, he links up well with Clint Capela through an excellent threading-the-needle bounce pass. The lead is back to one point.
After the timeout, Curry finally comes back in. The Warriors run their tried-and-tested double drag action, with the ball ending up in Durant’s hands. He is matched up against PJ Tucker, who is an excellent perimeter defender. Durant exposes the ball for a split second, which is enough for Tucker to get the strip and steal. Again, the Warriors are fortunate that the Rockets miss the three. Durant runs the floor and attempts to put Capela on a poster, but is denied. Two straight possessions for Durant unusually results in no points scored.
The Warriors recover through an excellent defensive sequence from Draymond Green. Harden attempts to drive inside, but Green becomes a solid brick wall that stops Harden in his tracks, forcing him to throw up a shot that misses. Durant hauls in the rebound and goes coast-to-coast for the up-and-under layup and a foul.
The Warriors get another stop when Andre Iguodala successfully survives the Harden experience by forcing a missed three. The shot is well contested by Iguodala without letting himself fall into Harden. Durant tries to respond in kind on the other end by pulling up for a three, but it is ill-advised, as he pulls up early in the shot clock and it ultimately doesn’t fall.
The Warriors continue to momentarily limit Harden’s late game effectiveness through this sequence. An attempted switch by the Rockets to force Curry onto Harden is foiled when Curry employs the “high tag” method. Harden passes to Austin Rivers, and Curry recovers well enough to contest the shot. The Rockets get the offensive rebound, and with Iguodala defending Harden, the attempted drop pass to Capela is rendered moot when a shot clock violation is forced.
After Durant buries a mid-range turnaround — extending the Warriors’ lead to 6 points — the Warriors break up an attempted lob to Capela. With the one minute mark fast approaching, the Warriors need to take their time and use up as much of the clock as possible. But Durant takes another ill-advised, early shot clock pull-up three. This allows Capela to run ahead of everyone else and toward the opposite end. Durant is unaware of the outlet pass to Capela, who catches it, makes the shot, and draws a foul. This sequence — which brought the Rockets back well within striking range — may have been the low-key killer for the Warriors.
The Warriors respond by trying to go to their patented Curry/Durant pick-and-roll. Curry gets an open look from Durant’s pick, and he immediately pulls up for the shot. Again, the shot is taken early in the clock — but the open look is there, and Curry grabs the opportunity. The three doesn’t go in, and the Rockets respond by going to their own MVP. Without a single second of hesitation, Harden shoots his shot and gets the game-tying basket that sends the game into overtime.
The back-and-forth overtime period
Overtime kicks off with Rivers and Curry engaging in a mini-duel. Rivers takes Curry off the dribble and beats him for the layup. On the other end, Curry drives inside against Rivers and finishes the tough layup to reestablish the deadlock.
Not long after, however, Harden responds. Iguodala tries to elicit an offensive foul call from the referees, but they swallow their whistle. This allows Harden to have the space he needs to bury a three, which gets the Rockets their first lead of the game since the first quarter.
After the Warriors cut the deficit to one after Durant makes two free throws, they then attempt to pull away from the Rockets by using their one-two Sunday punch, starting with an excellent defensive play by Curry, who draws the charge call on Harden. Curry’s feet are set and are well outside the restricted area, and Harden’s momentum forces him to barrel his way into a turnover.
This is followed by a mid-range jumper from Durant, who gets the hand-off from Green off of a curl. He gets to his favored spot on the court and rises up for the shot, and the Warriors re-take the lead.
Rivers’ drive on the other end gets stopped by Curry and Green, after which Durant gobbles up the rebound and pushes the pace. He sees Curry running toward the left corner and passes him the ball. Curry sets his feet and rises up for the corner three, and just like that, the Warriors’ 7-0 run gives them a four-point lead.
But Harden punches back. His own step-back three in front of the lengthy Durant brings the Rockets back to within one point.
An inbound pass to Durant — once again guarded by Tucker — allows him to go up for the shot, but that doesn’t go in. Harden brings the ball up, and the Rockets again attempt to switch Curry onto him. As is expected, Curry uses high tag to avoid the switch — but unlike before, he doesn’t recover back to Rivers, who gets the pass from Harden and buries the wide open three to give the Rockets a two-point lead.
The Warriors respond by going to Durant on the other end. A foul forces an inbound situation; Durant inbounds the ball to Green, and Curry screens for Durant, who runs toward the left elbow. Durant receives the pass and goes up for the tough fadeaway jumper over Tucker to tie the game at 130-all.
The Rockets then attempt to switch Curry onto Harden again, but the high tag proves to be successful this time. Harden is left to isolate against Thompson, who forces the three-point attempt to miss. Durant gets the rebound and passes the ball to a running Thompson, whose layup gives the Warriors another lead.
However, Harden manages to draw a somewhat dubious foul against Green, who vehemently protests the call — his case being that Harden warded off with his right hand. Regardless, this sends Harden to the line, and he makes both shots to send the game into yet another deadlock.
After a timeout, the play that the Warriors try to run for Durant quickly turns into chaos. Durant mishandles the ball and tries to save it from going out of bounds, which he does. The ball ends up in the hands of Curry, who makes the two-point jumper.
But upon closer inspection, the referees missed a blatant call that was as clear as day. In the process of trying to save the possession, Durant was clearly stepping out-of-bounds as he touched the ball. What made this more egregious was the fact that the referee had clear vision of what transpired — there is absolutely no excuse for the referee to swallow his whistle and deciding to not make any sort of call.
But like what has happened so many times in the past, a game of basketball has its own method of karmic retribution. The basketball gods are merciless; if they feel like they have been wronged, they will strike back with utmost vengeance. The gods made Harden their instrument — and through him, the Warriors were immediately punished by a stroke of lightning.
To add insult to injury, the basketball gods mock the Warriors’ attempt at their own game winner by clouding Iguodala’s vision of Thompson, who was left unmarked and all alone under the basket. The final shot goes to Durant, who is too far away to put up any kind of meaningful shot.
And just like that, the twenty-point lead that the Warriors once had — the victory over a high-profile opponent in a nationally-televised game that seemed like it was in the bag — slipped away from their clutches.
It was a crushing, albeit well-deserved defeat. The onus is now on the Warriors on how they will respond to this moving forward.
Thirty-nine down, 43 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.