The Houston Rockets were running roughshod all over the Golden State Warriors. Even without their best player in James Harden, the Rockets came out as the team ready to play and eager to prove that they are still a team to be reckoned with. The Warriors, on the other hand, came out flat and uninterested; perhaps the news of Harden’s unavailability was a shot of Valium to them, an indication that they shouldn’t take this game as seriously as they should.
After Klay Thompson hit a three to break the Rockets’ 15-0 blast out of the starting gate, the following defensive sequence was a microcosm of their initial apathetic approach to the game, one that would be hard to surmount even after nearly coming back from a 20-point deficit.
The Rockets run a 1-5 pick-and-roll that forces Stephen Curry to switch onto the much bigger Clint Capela, who proceeds to establish himself deep within the paint. Kevin Durant sees the mismatch and rotates toward Capela to help out Curry. He also signals Curry to switch on over to PJ Tucker in the corner, but Curry doesn’t respond. Tucker is left wide open to receive the ball and bury the three-point shot. After the sequence, Durant chastises Curry for failing to switch — an ominous portent of things to come for the Warriors.
The 15-0 run that preceded the Curry/Durant defensive miscommunication was also due to several defensive lapses. Defense is determined by a variety of things, such as athleticism, fundamentals, and basketball IQ. But perhaps the most important factor is effort. Effort can turn even the smallest or athletically-challenged players into good defenders; it is the ultimate tool of compensation, the equalizer between those who aren’t born to play defense, but still can — and those who are blessed with the attributes to play defense, but are left in the dust due to simply not caring all that much.
The Warriors are blessed with plenty of lengthy, athletic defenders who, to their credit, have proven to be full of effort in the past. But against the Rockets in the first quarter, that effort took a leave of absence. Most notably, Thompson, who is a bona fide lockdown defender, falls asleep on two three-point shots from Eric Gordon, who makes Thompson pay for going under the screen against a knockdown shooter like him. To follow that up, Thompson again makes the mistake of leaving Gordon alone to shoot a wide open three. The Splash Brother inexplicably sags off of Gordon to rotate toward Chris Paul, who makes the smart pass to Gordon for the bucket.
Durant was also a culprit, but he does not solely possess the blame in this sequence. After the Warriors miss a shot, Draymond Green saves the ball toward the waiting hands of the Rockets, who proceed to push the pace. With Green struggling to keep up — as well as DeMarcus Cousins being too slow to keep up with the Rockets’ transition offense — a 4-on-3 situation is created. Durant fails to keep track of Tucker on the right corner, who receives the pass and makes the Warriors pay for their lackluster transition defense.
On other occasions, defense is simply a matter of physical advantages and disadvantages — more often than not, taller and bigger players will lord over smaller players closer to the rim, while smaller and quicker players will have their way over the lumbering and slow-footed big men. There are exceptions to this, of course — Green is a defensive unicorn, possessing the size and length to bang bodies with the more physical big men in the league, while possessing the foot speed and fundamentals to lock down quick, perimeter-oriented guards and wings.
But DeMarcus Cousins is no Draymond Green. In this sequence, Cousins gets switched onto Paul, who takes a look at the man in front of him and licks his chops, eager to take full advantage of his handles and speed against the 6-foot-11-inch center. Cousins isn’t known for his defensive prowess on the perimeter, and Paul takes full advantage by blowing past him for the layup.
It is often said that defensive performance has a direct and near-immediate effect on how a team approaches offense. This assessment is true on most occasions, but the inverse is also the truth — good offense can lead to better effort and performance on the defensive end.
During the first quarter, the Warriors simply sputtered on offense — and as it has been several times in the past, turning the ball over has been one of the main reasons responsible for the Warriors being defensively compromised.
Going into Saturday night’s game, the Warriors were ranked 4th in the league in turnovers per game (12.4) over the 19-game span during which they had a record of 17-2, per NBA.com. Against the Rockets, the Warriors committed 17 turnovers, 5 of which came in the first quarter alone.
Only the first turnover — a steal by Gordon that turns into a wide open layup for him in transition — translated into turnover points for the Rockets. But the effects go beyond mere points on the other end. Turnovers are a momentum killer, but when there is no momentum to begin with, a team can possibly delve deeper and deeper into somewhat of a negative zone on offense, a predicament that is difficult to get out of. As what proceeded to happen, the Warriors managed to get out of that zone, but by then, it was too late — the Rockets were allowed to get into a groove, and the Warriors simply could not get over the hump.
As an aside, let me tell you a brief recollection of one of the most crucial battles in ancient history. The Battle of Marathon was fought between a Greek army consisting mostly of Athenians, and a large Persian force consisting of cavalry and ranged infantrymen. The Persians were intent on burning Athens to the ground, after the Athenians helped instigate a rebellion by a city subservient to the Persian Empire.
Out for revenge, the Persians amassed a large force of approximately 20,000-25,000 men, which outnumbered the Athenians’ force of 7,200 men. The Persians were at a clear numerical advantage, as well as having plenty of ranged firepower — in the form of bows and arrows — to whittle down the Athenians from range.
Before the battle, the Athenians sought help from the Spartans, who were considered the top military city-state in Ancient Greece. The Spartans declined, however, due to them being occupied by a religious festival. The Athenians were left on their own to fend off a foreign invasion force that threatened to change the course of Western civilization.
To make the long story short, the Athenians not only won against the Persians, but they crushed them in a battle that quickly turned into a massacre. Despite being outnumbered, the Athenians lost only 192 men, compared to the 6,000 that the Persians lost.
How did the Athenians pull it off? Simple — they lured the Persians into a tactical trap. Miltiades, the general leading the Athenian army, stretched his army out on the sides, at the risk of making his center thin and vulnerable to an attack aimed at the middle. As expected, the Persians broke through the center line of the Athenians — but they were quickly enveloped by the left and right flanks of the Athenians. Trapped on all sides — three against the Athenians, and one against the sea — the Persians were packed into a tight space like sardines in a can, where their numerical superiority was rendered useless.
In the same vein, the Warriors — healthy, well-rested, and possessing the advantage in terms of talent and firepower — were expected to win against the Rockets, who like the Athenians, were missing their best weapon. But the Rockets compensated for their perceived disadvantages, and what resulted was luring the Warriors into a trap that they were never able to get out of.
The Warriors are prone to these trap games, prone to playing down to the level of their opposition. The prevailing notion is that they are aware of such a habit, and that they will eventually flip a switch and destroy everyone in the playoffs.
That may well be the case, but the Warriors are treading dangerous ground by turning their lackadaisical approach to regular season games into a habit, which can easily cross over the fine line and carry over into the playoffs. It almost cost them the Western Conference Finals last year against the Rockets, a team that has had their number in the regular season for the past two years.
The Warriors can choose to brush away this performance and move on to the next one, and they have the right to do so. But if there is one takeaway from this game that they should keep in mind, it should be this: talent and firepower can only take you so far, and even the strongest teams fall victim to hubris and pride; the traps will always be there, waiting for you to nonchalantly spring them and ensnare you.
As the old saying goes, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” So far, history has been kind to the Warriors. But history is a fickle mistress.
Fifty-nine down, 23 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.