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Analysis: Lackluster play dooms Warriors in 118-112 loss to Houston Rockets

The Harden-less Rockets jumped out to a 15-0 lead in the game’s opening minutes as they earned their third-straight regular-season win over the Warriors.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

After their exciting win over the Sacramento Kings on Thursday, the Warriors welcomed the Houston Rockets to Oracle Arena for a Saturday night primetime matchup. The game would be missing a little bit of its firepower as the Rockets would be without James Harden. But even though the Rockets were short-handed, the game did not lack for intrigue and excitement.

The Rockets led for the entire first half of Saturday night’s game, even holding a 20-point lead all while playing without the reigning MVP. The Warriors played better in the second half, even taking the lead at one point, but couldn’t do enough to overcome those early miscues as the Rockets handed the Warriors a 118-112 home loss.

Turnovers and shooting woes lead to an early deficit

The Warriors dug an enormous hole for themselves early and spent the rest of the game trying to climb out of it. The Warriors didn’t score their first points of the game until four minutes had elapsed. The Rockets took full advantage and jumped out to a 15-0 lead. On Saturday night, the Warriors faced their largest first quarter (16 points) and first half (20 points) deficits of the season.

One of the major reasons the Warriors fell behind early was their propensity for turning the ball over. In their last two games before the All-Star break, the Warriors turned it over just 6 and 8 times. But after turning it over 15 times against the Kings on Thursday night, the Warriors committed 18 turnovers against the Rockets. 5 of those turnovers came in the first quarter and resulted in 7 Rockets’ points, allowing the Rockets to have a 15-point advantage after one quarter.

Another reason the Warriors fell behind early was especially poor shooting. Some of the credit must go to a tough Rockets defense (and one player in particular about whom I’ll be speaking later) while bad luck and randomness had to play a role as well. The Warriors shot 41.7% from the field in the first half of Saturday night’s game, going 29.4% from long distance. The second half went much better for the Warriors, as they shot 52.4% from the field and 47.4% from three-point range, even briefly taking the lead in the third quarter.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors
Even though the Warriors found their groove in the second half, it wasn’t enough to secure a win over the short-handed Rockets.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Though it was hard for the team to find any collective rhythm, the Warriors’ star players did their best to keep the Warriors in a game they seemed hell-bent on giving away. Stephen Curry scored 25 points on Saturday night, including 10 points in a second quarter that saw the Warriors cut a 15-point Rockets lead to just 7 at halftime. Curry finished the game with 9 rebounds and 7 assists as well.

Klay Thompson scored 20 points of his own while Kevin Durant led all scorers with 29 points. Durant scored 19 of those 29 points in the first half, grinding out points and getting to the free-throw line amidst all those early shooting struggles.

Though their three All-Stars played well, it wasn’t enough to overcome those early mistakes and a lack of production from their bench (collectively, they scored just 21 points) to get the Warriors a win.

Bad beat for Boogie

While quite a few Warriors players struggled in Saturday night’s loss, it was an especially rough game for DeMarcus Cousins. That showed up most notably in his +/- for the game. Cousins was a team-low -17 against the Rockets, his third game with a negative +/- in the last four.

The Rockets made a point of targeting Cousins in the pick-and-roll, switching Chris Paul or Eric Gordon onto him and forcing the big man to contend with quicker guards. Paul scored 23 points in the win while Gordon led the Rockets in scoring with 25 points. Paul also had a season-high 17 assists, finding the Rockets’ big men, particularly Kenneth Faried and Nene, and allowing them to take advantage of their matchup with Warriors’ center.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors
Cousins struggled at both ends of the court in the Warriors’ loss to the Houston Rockets.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Cousins’ offense also left much to be desired as he shot 4/12 from the field on his way to 13 points. It’s clear that the big man’s touch around the basket isn’t all the way back yet and he’s still working off some of the rust he accrued as he rehabbed from his injury.

The Rockets’ speed and energy always meant this was going to be a tough matchup for Cousins and the Warriors played much better when they had Jordan Bell in the center spot. The second-year player from Oregon gave the Warriors an energy boost in his 17 minutes, the most he’s played since January 28th at the Indiana Pacers. In those 17 minutes, Bell posted a +/- of 2, one of the few players who posted a positive number on Saturday night.

After the game, Cousins acknowledged that his play of late has left something to be desired.

Warriors take their eye off the ball

When it was announced that Harden wouldn't be playing in this game, quite a few people wondered what kind of effect it would have on the Warriors. In theory, taking away the reigning MVP from an opponent will make life a little bit easier for you. But with the Warriors that’s not often the case. They need the challenge, the motivation, to get focused for these regular season game, knowing that the only thing that matters for their season is what happens in the playoffs.

That tendency to lose focus and not play with intensity was on full display against the Rockets. During that first quarter, the Warriors made passes that were lazy or not smart, leading to those aforementioned turnovers. The Warriors clearly thought they could just come out and win this game by showing up. There were not ready for the toughness the Rockets brought to the game as they raced out to that early lead. When they finally focused and started playing up to their championship level, it was too late.

In his postgame press conference, head coach Steve Kerr addressed the Warriors sluggish play (both in this game and the previous game against the Kings) and held himself accountable.

Tucker give the Warriors trouble (again)

With apologies to Paul, Gordon and Faried (who had a turn-back-the-clock performance, scoring 20 points and grabbing 10 rebounds), the Rockets player who was the most impressive and played the greatest role in their winning this game was P.J. Tucker. Given a larger role in the offense with Harden out, Tucker responded by scoring 18 points. It’s the most Tucker has scored since a January 25th win over the Toronto Raptors.

But Tucker’s defense and physicality was what made his game against the Warriors stand out. Tucker was an absolute monster on defense, routinely taking on Durant or Curry and forcing them into bad shots and turnovers. Tucker blocked 2 shots against the Warriors and grabbed 4 steals.

If you were putting together a team of players who give the Warriors trouble, Tucker would probably be one of the first players you looked to acquire. On Saturday night, he showed a prime-time television audience exactly why.

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