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The Golden Breakdown: Taking a look at what the Warriors did to win against the Rockets

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Despite missing Kevin Durant, the Warriors were able to defeat the Rockets with top-level execution and excellent play from Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and DeMarcus Cousins.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It’s easy to fall into the Chicken Little-esque mindset that the sky is falling whenever the Golden State Warriors suffer an inexplicable defeat. Having lost to the worst team in the Western Conference triggered such a sentiment among Warriors fans. The defending champions — the team still considered as the favorites to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy in June — were killed by a rock thrown from a slingshot by the Phoenix Suns, an indication that the Warriors could very well be hitting a point even lower and more jagged than what could be construed as rock bottom.

It was a demoralizing defeat, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time. The Warriors are preparing to head into a tough roadtrip, with games against the Western Conference’s cream of the crop. Going into their game against the Houston Rockets — winners of their last three meetings this season and looking to sweep their perceived rivals — the Warriors had to make a statement. Sure, it was just “another regular season game”, but amid doubts being expressed by many in terms of their ability to get up for the important games — as well as living up to their reputation as the back-to-back champions — the Warriors absolutely needed to win.

And win, they did.

The Warriors’ excellent start

One pitfall that the Warriors have had consistently during this season is their inability to get off to a good start right off the bat. Those lethargic starts, where they have often given off an aura of being disengaged and uninterested, have often been the reasons for several of their losses this season.

If they wanted to win against the Rockets, they couldn’t afford to just lay down and let the Rockets take the initiative — they had to take it for themselves immediately, both offensively and defensively.

That initiative had to start with an aggressive and locked in Stephen Curry, who immediately scored on this possession courtesy of a well-timed cut and a well-placed lead pass from DeMarcus Cousins.

With Curry’s recent struggles from beyond the arc, he also needed to establish a three-point rhythm. The Warriors keep it simple by feeding the ball to Cousins on the low-post, flowing into a classic split action. Andre Iguodala screens for Curry, and James Harden fails to rotate onto Curry, who buries the three.

A big part of Harden hesitating to rotate out onto the perimeter is the fact that Cousins is switched onto Eric Gordon, a severe mismatch and an almost surefire way for Cousins to score on the low post. This is the other side of the coin when it comes to Cousins’ viability on the floor against the Rockets — he may very well be exploited to death on the defensive end by constant pick-and-rolls, but in turn, he will exploit the Rockets’ switch-everything scheme on the offensive end.

Minutes later, the Warriors run a “fake” pin down for Curry, where Looney slips the screen at the last minute. However, Kenneth Faried falls asleep on defense and allows Curry to have enough space and time to line up the shot, which he easily makes.

In addition to Curry setting the tone offensively, the supporting cast also did their part on both ends of the floor to establish an early advantage over the Rockets.

Look at this defensive possession from the Warriors. The Rockets set a screen to force Kevon Looney to switch onto Harden — a perceived mismatch, but one that Looney has proven to be more than capable of handling. Harden isolates, but is somehow discouraged by the prospect of trying to score on Looney. With everyone else on the Warriors doing a great job of staying home with their assignments, Harden passes out to Eric Gordon on the right, and a quick closeout by Curry forces Gordon to put the ball down. The Rockets lose track of the time left on the shot clock, and quick poke by Curry buys enough time for the Rockets to turn the ball over. Excellent defense by the Warriors.

Another good sign that the Warriors are locked in and engaged is their propensity to push the pace to hunt for a quick basket. Even off a made bucket by the Rockets, the Warriors don’t get discouraged. Look at Draymond Green in this possession — per usual, his sense of urgency to catch an unprepared transition defense attains its goal. The Rockets are caught off-guard, and Green easily blows past Faried for the dunk. Poor transition defense from the Rockets, but credit to Green for forcing them into an untenable position.

The Rockets often rely on a barrage of three-point shots that build up offensive momentum, which is why they are so heavily reliant on having Harden or Chris Paul handling the ball and making plays for themselves or their other teammates. But on the other end of that spectrum is the propensity for becoming too stagnant — the ball doesn’t move at all, everyone is forced to become a bystander, and the possession is wasted.

Looney gets switched onto Paul in this sequence, but Paul doesn’t take the matchup and instead passes to Iman Shumpert, who pulls up for a contested shot by Green. Take note of Austin Rivers — he jogs back to the other end and is outrun by Alfonzo McKinnie, resulting in an easy transition bucket courtesy of a Curry lob to McKinnie. Again, poor transition defense by the Rockets, and excellent defense leading into immediate offense by the Warriors.

To cap off the Warriors’ great start, watch Looney in this possession, who starts off as a “spacer” stationed in the right corner. Conventional wisdom would compel a defender to ignore a non-shooter like Looney, and to sag off him and play closer to the paint, which is what Faried does. When Curry bricks a deep three, the Rockets think that they only have Green to box out — but out of nowhere, Looney races from the corner and takes off like a rocket for the putback dunk.

Klay Thompson’s scoring versatility

People often place certain players in well-defined categories, while having misconceptions about those same players lacking versatility in terms of how they score. Look at Curry, for instance — he is often looked at as being “only a shooter,” as if that’s supposed to take away from his greatness. But he’s more than just an elite three-point shooter — what makes him even more deadly is his ability to use the threat of his shooting to put the ball down, drive, and finish at the rim at an elite level.

That misconception also follows Klay Thompson around, due to his status as being a deadly three-point shooter, perhaps second only to Curry in that category when all is said and done. However, in the same vein as his fellow Splash Brother, Thompson is also a versatile scorer, capable of being more than just a long-range sniper.

In this possession, the Rockets defense expects Thompson to run toward the arc using staggered screens. But Thompson sees a small gap in the paint, and instead changes his route and catches the pass in the paint. He uses his gravity to make defenses guess, and he makes the Rockets guess wrongly in this possession by pulling up for a turnaround mid-range jumper.

Notice how Thompson often does the most damage when he is moving off the ball. He is perhaps the deadliest off-ball player in the league, a player who contradicts the notion of a star needing to handle the ball at all times in order to be effective. He knows where to position himself, where to go, and how to time his cuts so that passes from the likes of Green and Cousins do not go to waste.

In these clips, Thompson feeds off of Cousins’ ability to pass from the low post as well as from the “pinch post” or high post/elbow. He also gets a dunk in transition courtesy of a pinpoint bounce pass from Green.

Off course, the main watering source for Thompson’s scoring binge against the Rockets still came off his incredible three-point shots. As I pointed out before in my previous breakdown, his 4-of-15 clip on threes against the Suns was probably a one-off thing, and that his shooting would return to him the following game. By going 5-of-10 on threes against the Rockets, Thompson proved that notion to be correct.

Take note of the excellent defense being played on Harden by the Warriors in the third clip below, which translates immediately into a Thompson three on the other end.

DeMarcus Cousins burns Clint Capela

Cousins is still a potential defensive liability in a possible playoff series against the Rockets, who hunt for mismatches like a bunch of sharks trying to smell an ounce of blood and going in for the kill. But to Cousins’ credit, he fared well enough to survive against the Rockets’ switch-hunting offensive scheme, even if they curiously did not look to exploit the big man as much as people thought they would.

Other than the aforementioned mismatch potential that he can exploit through the Rockets’ switch-everything defensive scheme, Cousins uncovered another revelation that could prove handy in the playoffs should the Warriors face the Rockets — the fact that Clint Capela is incapable of guarding a traditional low-post banger like him.

Cousins had a good all-around game — 27 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists. Combined with his exceptional passing, he displayed an ability to take advantage all night long of Capela in a variety of ways, including stretching Capela out on the perimeter with this three, despite shooting only 23.3 percent from that range coming into Wednesday night.

Cousins displayed his full offensive skill set against Capela, who was employed by the Rockets to defend him one-on-one — an adjustment that had the aim of shying away from trying to switch a smaller defender onto Cousins. Despite his profile as a mobile big man capable of defending the rim as well as the perimeter, Capela was made to look helpless against the Warriors’ big man.

Look at the full array of moves Cousins unleashed on Capela — mid-range jumpers, turnaround post fadeaways, dribble drives to the rim, and even a reverse layup. This is the kind of luxury that the Warriors and Dub Nation envisioned from the All-Star big man, and to see it being realized against the Rockets is most definitely a pleasing sight.

Without Kevin Durant, the Warriors were able to step up and defeat the Rockets to prevent being swept by a team that they take great pride in not losing to. This Houston team is, by all means, a legitimate threat — the Warriors were on the brink of elimination during last season’s Western Conference Finals, if not for a combination of fortuitous misses by the Rockets (in the form of 27 missed threes in a row), and clutch shot making from Curry, Thompson, and Durant.

People can say all they want about this being just another win in an 82-game grind of a season — the Warriors themselves will downplay the importance of this game and will move on to the next task at hand — but deep down, the Warriors knew that they needed to make a statement, something to remind the Rockets of their pedigree and status as kings of the hill.

The win provided a huge sigh of relief for everyone, proof that these Warriors can bring out their best when it matters. As GSoM’s Jannelle Moore said in her recap:

We haven’t been playing championship ball lately. We’ve been undisciplined and unfocused. We can’t finish the rest of the season this way and expect to three-peat and we sure as hell don’t want to be swept twice this year. Let’s lock in and try to stay that way. We know we are capable of playing at the level that we are accustomed to. So let’s play like it.”

The Warriors stepped up to the challenge. They played championship level basketball — and they weren’t even at full strength. But in what was the most telling postgame clip, it looks like the strength of the bond between two of the Warriors’ best players is as intact as its ever been.

One can only hope that this huge victory — as well as the clip above — are signs that the Warriors are turning the corner just before the playoffs.

Sixty-seven down, 15 more to go.

Stay Golden, Dub Nation.