Stephen Curry and James Harden were the NBA's top two MVP candidates throughout the NBA season, leading their teams to the two best records in the Western Conference with countless examples of their offensive genius. While Curry ended up with the award, the ongoing conference finals have allowed these superstars to battle each other again. After two games, they and the rest of the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets have not disappointed at all.
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The Rockets battled back from a 17-point second quarter deficit to head into halftime with a tie and played the top-seeded Warriors nearly even throughout the second half. Down 99-98 with 33 seconds left in regulation, Houston forced Harrison Barnes into a miss on a difficult reverse layup and held the ball with seven ticks remaining. Head coach Kevin McHale decided not to call his team's last timeout, and Harden looked to have a chance for a buzzer-beating game-winner. Unfortunately for him, Curry and Klay Thompson executed an excellent trap to force a turnover and cinch the 99-98 victory. Take a look:
Observers can nitpick Harden's decision to pass off to Dwight Howard, which allowed the Warriors a chance to get better defensive possession. Harden certainly didn't seem pleased with the outcome after the final buzzer:
But this was arguably the only serious mistake he made in a tremendous 38-point performance on 13-of-21 shooting from the field and 9-of-10 from the line with 10 rebounds, nine assists, three steals, and a block. Harden is known as a player who depends on foul shots for his scoring, but he adjusted his approach as referees held onto their whistles early and broke down some excellent perimeter defense from Thompson with a succession of feints, stepbacks, and drives. Part of the surprise of the final possession was that Harden hadn't seemed hesitant the entire game. The expected move would have been for him to call a timeout against a double-team or take on the defense and hope for an opening down the left side.
If the game came down to this split-second decision, it was largely because Curry essentially matched Harden in terms of impact. The Warriors star put up 33 points on 13-of-21 from the field and 5-of-11 from beyond the arc, firing difficult shots over taller defenders and proving his unique excellence on possession after possession. The Rockets tried to trap him in crunch time to force other players to make plays, but Curry remained patient and showed that individual brilliance can outshine sound tactics. This gorgeous jumper over Terrence Jones at the 1:39 mark gave the Warriors a 98-90 lead and seemed to put the game away:
It's a testament to the Rockets' resilience and quality that they nearly won. Despite winning the final three games against the Los Angeles Clippers to make the conference finals, Houston had something to prove in this series after sleepwalking through the first few games in the previous round. They have been excellent in these first two games and have played well enough to have won both games. The trouble is that the Warriors can handle a team's best shot and have managed two grind out two wins anyway. Both sides have been great, but Golden State simply appears to have more ways to reach their peak.
In the first quarter, it looked as if the Warriors were a few better decisions away from cruising to a blowout. Curry knocked down four three-pointers on six attempts in the first quarter, putting up 15 points as the Rockets curiously neglected to track him around the arc on several possessions. His outburst was indicative of the Warriors' shooting as a team — 14-of-22 from the field on 12 assists. The Rockets had few answers for their opponents' ball movement and execution.
In fact, it could have been an ugly opening period if not for some curious passes from the Warriors. Golden State turned it over seven times in the first, all on live-ball steals that led to 11 Houston points (and eight fastbreak points). The Rockets needed those transition opportunities, too, because they shot just 11-of-26 from the field as Josh Smith took on a bizarrely major portion of the scoring responsibilities (2-of-8 FG). Houston also caught a blow via the apparently limited abilities of Dwight Howard, who was announced as active roughly an hour before tipoff after suffering a sprained left knee in Game 1. Howard grabbed five rebounds in the quarter but did not look anywhere near his usually athletic self, failing to move laterally with capable quickness and seemingly having some trouble challenging shots.
The situation began to look much worse for the Rockets once the Warriors stopped turning it over. Golden State went on a 17-2 run from 1:53 in the first through the opening three minutes of the second to open up a 44-28 lead. The Warriors suddenly looked to have recaptured the form that had allowed them to beat the Rockets by double-digits in all four matchups of the regular season. Andrew Bogut bounced back from a poor Game 1 to finish at the rim (his eventual 14 points marked his highest total since March 2 vs. the Boston Celtics) and defend at the other end (five blocks), effectively giving the Warriors an interior advantage that they had previously lacked. The margin eventually got up to 17 points in the next few minutes, and the Rockets appeared to have been grounded.
They deserve lots of credit not only for not folding, but for battling back to tie it up at 55-55 by halftime. Much of it should go to Harden, who scored 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting over the final 4:45. With Harden dominating offensively and Howard finding a second wind that lasted for the remainder of the game, the Rockets proved again that they will not leave the postseason quietly. It is difficult to overstate their resilience and resolve at this point, especially after they looked profoundly uninterested vs. the Clippers just over a week ago.
It starts with the stars, who have both had to adjust to new realities in these first two games. Harden was been decried as too reliant on fouls throughout this season, but in both games vs. Golden State he has quickly stopped seeking out contact and instead focused on delivering the most impressive one-on-one offense we've seen this postseason. Meanwhile, Howard has played through injury — hopefully killing any remaining belief that he's soft in the process — and managed to step up his game when his team needed it. A player who looked severely diminished in the opening minutes figured out a way to contribute 19 points (8-of-11 FG) and 17 rebounds with mostly solid defense. He did what was asked of him and more.
Unfortunately for Houston, their opponents don't shrink from the spotlight, either. After the Rockets opened up a six-point lead early in the third quarter, the Warriors went on a 7-0 lead out of a timeout to take the lead back at 66-65. Josh Smith made a tough jumper to get back on top, but Thompson followed right after with a dunk to give the Warriors a 68-67 lead that they never relinquished again. At the same time, there was nothing comfortable about the finish. However, with Curry at the helm, Golden State got enough shot creation and execution and stay ahead:
Nevertheless, the Rockets really were right there the whole way, enough so that a few Warriors mistakes nearly cost them the game. After going on a 6-1 run in about 42 seconds (all from Harden off four free throws and a tough lay-up) to cut the lead to 99-96, the Rockets forced the Warriors into an eight-second violation with only 40 seconds left. Harden, seemingly drawing for a limitless supply of incredible plays, was swarmed and managed to throw an incredible alley-oop pass to Howard for an easy dunk:
After that, it was hard to believe that he wouldn't make the necessary plays with an opportunity to win the game. The turnover on the final play stands out as a failure, but it was more surprising than shameful. Harden kept the Rockets in this game throughout on a night where only Howard and reserve Terrence Jones (12 points on 6-of-12 FG) joined him in playing above expectations. Plus, he also turned Thompson into marginal offensive player (13 points on 1-of-7 shooting from deep) given how much energy he had to expend on defense. It's hard to find many more faults in Harden's 41 minutes.
Yet the Warriors make a habit of punishing opponent mistakes no matter their rarity. These two games have been extremely competitive and decided by just five combined points, but the Warriors still hold a 2-0 advantage and will head to Houston knowing that a split puts them in extremely good position to win the series. If only by virtue of the math, they hold the upper hand.
The pressure is now on Houston to respond at home. Although they might not match Golden State's two wins, we can assume they will provide the effort required to push them to the brink.
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