To observers and fans of the NBA at large, the Houston Rockets’ post-game yapping about the apparent persecution they received from the officials served only to make them a walking and talking salt mine. When James Harden famously declared that he just wanted a “fair chance,” many people collectively rolled their eyes at the statement, knowing full well that of all the players in the NBA, Harden is the last person who should be asking for leeway from the officials.
But behind the Rockets’ bemoaning of the way they were officiated in Game 1 lay an ulterior motive, an attempt to control the narrative that could very well plant seeds within the NBA and their officials. According to Zach Lowe and Rachel Nichols of ESPN, the Rockets believed that officiating during last season’s Western Conference finals cost them a trip to the NBA Finals — enough for them to concoct a report of 81 missed calls and non-calls that, according to them, cost them 18.6 points.
As an organization, the Rockets can be described as “annoying,” but one has to admit that they are also incredibly crafty. They knew that by crying wolf to the media about the officiating as well as leaking their audited report, they may be able to influence the league’s approach to officiating going into Game 2. By drawing attention to the officials’ apparent inattention towards them, the referees may have no choice but to start paying them heed.
Spoiler alert: It didn’t work.
The officials were far from being the story of Game 2. The narrative that the Rockets tried to take control of — the narrative they tried to impose on a game they needed to win by any means necessary — was thrown away into the proverbial garbage heap in favor of a more pure and genuine narrative.
Unlike the Rockets’ use of words, guile, and manipulation to create their narrative, the Warriors simply used their natural talents, their basketball IQ, and their cohesiveness on both ends of the floor to create their own.
Narrative #1: The Warriors’ swarming and intelligent defense
Looking past the controversy generated by the Rockets’ protestations over the officiating in Game 1, they were forced into a difficult time offensively by the Warriors, with the most glaring pieces of evidence being their 41.9 percent clip from the field and 29.8 percent success rate from their bread-and-butter three-point range.
While life was made largely difficult for the Rockets beyond the arc in Game 1, they also missed plenty of open shots that they would normally knock down. The NBA is a make-or-miss league; the Rockets are fully-aware of that, having been victims of missing timely shots during close-out games.
Staying true to their system, they kept their fingers on the square button without hesitation, keeping faith in the law of averages by believing that sooner or later, the shots will eventually fall.
In Game 2, the Rockets fared much better from three-point range, knocking down 17 of their 40 attempts (42.5 percent). Normally, this three-point avalanche would be more than enough to run lesser opponents out of the building.
In the face of a three-point barrage, the Warriors refused to lie still and let it hit them on the face. They compensated in other ways defensively. The Rockets continued to hunt for mismatches, most notably on Stephen Curry, who again employed his show/hedge tactic to blow up the Rockets’ schemes.
It was widely expected that the Rockets expected to counter Curry’s show/hedge — coined as “high tag” by GSoM’s Apricot — through several ways. Harden could take advantage through splitting the defense during the small window that Curry would be showing. The Rockets could also employ deadly pick-and-pop shooters as screeners, which would put pressure on the Warriors to straight-up switch to prevent a shooter from getting open.
But despite that, it seemed like the Warriors already had counters to the Rockets’ counters. To use a classic boxing adage: “You never counterpunch with a counterpuncher.” The Warriors’ counter consisted of pre-switching Curry off the ball in order to keep him away from on-ball screening actions involving Harden as much as possible.
In the clip above, Curry starts on Clint Capela, then switches onto Eric Gordon. The Rockets hunt for Curry by signaling for Gordon to set a screen for Harden, but the Warriors prevent this by having Klay Thompson pre-switch with Curry. Instead of Curry being involved in the main action, Harden now has to contend with both Thompson and Andre Iguodala, who are both notable foils to him.
Countering the counters proved effective at stagnating the Rockets’ offense, but an even bigger story was the Rockets’ 17 turnovers. From the start, the Warriors were hell-bent on flipping the script on their adversaries by inflicting a ton of defensive pressure.
Kevin Durant set the tone immediately, picking up Capela on a roll to force a travel and drawing a charge on Harden.
From that point onward, the turnover floodgates for the Rockets opened against a team who made the most out of almost every gift they received or forced from their rivals. By halftime, the Rockets’ aversion to keeping control of the ball played a huge part in their 9-point deficit by the end of the 1st quarter.
Houston turned the ball over on 39.1% of their possessions in the first quarter and 6/9 were live ball.— Danny Leroux (@DannyLeroux) May 1, 2019
By halftime, a clearer picture started to emerge. The Rockets’ failure to take care of the ball — as well giving up plenty of offensive rebounds — gave them much fewer possessions, contributing to a significant advantage in true shot attempts for the Warriors.
In the first half, the Warriors had 13 more true shot attempts than the Rockets did, driven by a 48% offensive rebound rate and a substantial edge in turnovers. Houston was at 61% true shooting, including 46% from 3-point range. pic.twitter.com/RgB6iDiccP— Positive Residual (@presidual) May 1, 2019
By the end of the night, the Rockets’ 17 turnovers turned into 24 points off turnovers for the Warriors, who swarmed all over the Rockets through trapping shooters in the corner, having active hands that were able to deflect passes away from their intended targets, jumping into passing lanes to intercept wayward passes, and lulling the Rockets into stagnant possessions that forced them into shot clock violations.
Much was made of the Rockets’ manufactured narrative of being robbed of potential points from missed calls. Being robbed of potential points in Game 2 due to the Warriors defense outright forcing them into turnovers turned into the prevailing narrative — and a much more pleasing one at that.
Narrative #2: The Warriors’ steady offense
While the Rockets wilted under the pressure of a swarming defense, the Warriors’ offense was largely unimpeded. Their shooting was, for the most part, nothing outstanding — 46.2 percent from the field, and 30.6 percent from three-point range. But the offense was steady, and most importantly, the Warriors finally realized the importance of not turning the ball over by only committing 12 of them.
Everything else was vintage Warriors offense, one that relies heavily on passing and assists. Their 24 assists — while a relatively small number compared to their playoff-leading 29.4 per game — was everything they could’ve hoped for, especially against a switch-everything defensive scheme designed to heavily stall movement and cut off avenues for ball movement.
One such example of the Warriors overcoming the Rockets defense is by employing a high pick-and-roll that has become a staple of their offense. While it is not as used as often as most people would want it to be, the Warriors use it just enough to catch defenses off-guard. Against a switching scheme, the action is fast and hard hitting, preventing the defense from properly switching if they are not paying enough attention.
Here is Curry turning a fast corner after Draymond Green sets a solid high screen. Curry’s penetration collapses the defense, with Harden sagging off of Iguodala in the corner. Curry kicks it out, and Iguodala knocks down the jumper.
The more classic outcome of a Curry/Green high pick-and-roll is the creation of a 2-on-1 situation, where a single defender in the paint is left on an island to deal with a potential Green drive or a lob to a baseline-cutting Iguodala. The success rate for this play is extremely high, with it rarely failing to generate an easy bucket.
It wouldn’t all be possible, however, without the otherworldly gravity of Curry, whose threat of shooting a jumper attracts traps and blitzes. With two defenders taken out of the equation, the Warriors play the numbers game, and the numbers are often in their favor.
The principle behind the Rockets’ switching scheme is to prevent the Warriors’ staple screening actions from working as intended. When the Rockets fail to switch, the Warriors are allowed to run their bread-and-butter split action, leading to a Curry three that he has all the time in the world to line up and shoot.
The Rockets defense again fails to stay true to their switching scheme. With Green feeding Durant in the post, PJ Tucker elects to stay close to Durant, who has a mismatch. This allows Green to set a screen on Thompson’s defender, allowing him to flare toward the top of the arc, catch the pass, and go up for the three.
In the next possession, Tucker is again unable to account for a Thompson three. The threat of a driving Kevon Looney garners Tucker’s attention, while a pin down by Green catches Austin Rivers solidly. Thompson catches and shoots for his second consecutive three.
Three exquisite sets — the high pick-and-roll, the low-post split action, and a simple pin down — painted a beautiful picture that illustrated the on-court narrative for the Warriors, one that consisted of their pure desire to play basketball the correct way.
Actions speak louder than words; offensive brilliance and defensive tenacity speak louder than post-game complaints and toothless pieces of paper. Attempts to game the system will always be trumped by letting the system flow into the very fabric of a team’s identity.
“The one thing that we could control is our focus on what matters in terms of winning the basketball game and outplaying them,” Curry said when asked about dealing with the officiating controversy. “We came in with the right composure and understanding that there were gonna be calls that weren’t gonna go our way. Just deal with it and keep playing with a next-play mentality.”
The Rockets are now down 0-2, and it would seem like they are desperately trying to find solutions to overcome their fiercest Western Conference rivals. The narratives they created to gain an advantage backfired on them, only serving to stain a reputation that was already on shaky ground.
The Warriors, as they have always done for the past 5 years, let their own narratives on the court speak volumes.
Six wins down, 10 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.