HOUSTON — Eric Gordon tried to bait Draymond Green with his dribble, but the ball kept slipping from his hands until he was in a race against the shot clock. Green surrendered no ground and suddenly was towering over Gordon above the 3-point line, daring the reigning Sixth Man of the Year to do something. Gordon finally flung the ball toward the rim, causing players on the Golden State Warriors’ bench to stand up, ready to applaud Green’s textbook defense. But the shot fell. Green glared. And the Warriors on the bench sat back down.
The Houston Rockets weren’t letting this one get away. And they weren’t going to let the developing narrative that what made them special couldn’t work against this team gain any more momentum. By focusing on self-improvement instead of a complete overhaul, by having Gordon and two unlikely forwards out-splash the greatest shooting backcourt in NBA history, by withstanding another offensive eruption from the game’s most fearsome 7-foot assassin, and by turning up their swag, the Rockets did the basketball world a huge favor Wednesday night: They made a playoff series involving the Warriors intriguing for once.
“We showed how good we can be,” Gordon told Yahoo Sports after the Rockets’ 127-105 victory in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. “It was just us seeing it, and everyone else is seeing it, that we have a chance.”
Since the Warriors added Kevin Durant, no team had ever drawn even in a playoff series with them until the stubborn Rockets shut down all of the handwringing about their style of play and delivered the kind of performance that justified why folks have been looking forward to this matchup for several months. Desperation brought out the best of the Rockets, who appeared so despondent after their Game 1 stinker that James Harden called his teammates in an effort “to keep our guys’ swag up.” Harden had to remind his guys via text messages, voicemails and frank conversations who they were, how they got here, and where they hope to be. The formidable Warriors stand in their way, but the stubbornness of coach Mike D’Antoni and the cockiness of the team’s stars are what led them to set a franchise record for wins in the regular season and why they believe they could upend a potential dynasty before it started.
“They’re one of the best all-time teams. We’re trying to prove we’re up there with them,” D’Antoni said.
In previous series over the past two postseasons in which the Warriors dropped a game, arrogance and complacency have been the ready-made excuse for a team that never steps on the floor without a huge talent disparity. But if that’s the case, that’s a dangerous game to play against these Rockets, who have no interest in being a footnote in the Warriors’ quest to win the franchise’s first repeat championship. Houston believes it is the better team, hasn’t been shy about expressing that opinion and sent the Warriors back home to Oracle Arena with some problems to address before Game 3. Will the Stephen Curry they know and love show up this postseason? Has their offensive dependence on Durant descended into an addiction? And what happens if the Hamptons Five lineup plays more like the Hampton Inn lineup?
Curry is still working his way back into form after returning from a nearly six-week absence following a knee injury. Six games into his comeback, Curry hasn’t quite looked right since that initial, adrenaline-fueled return against New Orleans that made the Warriors seem to be a galaxy away from the rest of the league. After his first pair of consecutive playoff games with only one 3-pointer peer game to start this series, Curry said he was “feeling great” and Warriors coach Steve Kerr joked that the injury was “13.7 percent” responsible for his woes. The Warriors were able to get past San Antonio without Curry and didn’t need Curry at his best to defeat the Pelicans. But the Rockets are a different challenge altogether, with Harden, the likely MVP; Chris Paul, making his long-awaited first conference finals appearance in his 13th season; and scrappy role players who have accepted what’s asked of them all season. “We’re playing a team that won 65 games,” Kerr said. “They’re damn good.”
The Rockets continue to magnify Curry’s misery by targeting him on the defensive end. Curry knows the onslaught is coming, in the form of Harden step-backs and Paul forearm shoves to the ground, but the Warriors’ guard hasn’t been able to counter with much more than a few driving layups whenever Clint Capela switches over to him. Every team would take Curry layups over those crowd-silencing threes that keep the two-time MVP shimmying. Klay Thompson compensated for Curry’s struggles in Game 1, but the Rockets limited his touches and ran him off the 3-point line in Game 2, making him ineffective and putting even more pressure on Durant to carry the offensive load. Durant had 38 points, giving him 75 for the series, but he has only handed out one assist. The Warriors know Durant can bail them out, and he’s more than willing to oblige. But an offense predicated on ball movement and player movement can get stifled and stagnant when everyone sits back and just watches Durant’s one-man show. Houston doesn’t have an answer for Durant, but his production is muted if the rest of the team is silenced.
Golden State got the split it wanted, starting its first series on the road in the Kerr era, but the Rockets got what they needed, and that’s the confidence that they can hang with a team that usually doesn’t dilly-dally in the postseason. Talking a good game, which the Rockets have done all season, is different from playing one. But they can also take some solace winning a game in which Harden (27 points) didn’t have to go supernova and Paul only had to worry about making sure his passes were fancy enough for the highlights. Gordon (27 points) single-handedly outscored Curry and Thompson. P.J. Tucker and Trevor Ariza found the shots that had gone missing in the first game — and made close to all of them, combining to shoot 15-of-18. The Rockets still utilized one-on-one play, but did it quicker and more decisively. And the miscommunications and breakdowns on defense were diminished considerably, replaced by more veracity and hustle.
One win doesn’t distinguish the Rockets from Cleveland, San Antonio or New Orleans — the other teams that were able to sneak off with a victory from the Warriors since Durant arrived. But by pushing back so quickly, the Rockets have signaled that this round might be more of a fight. “We don’t really worry about who we’re playing against. If we come out and be some dogs and do what we did,” Harden said, “it doesn’t matter.”
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