A little more than halfway through the second quarter, James Harden ran off a screen set by Patrick Beverley at the wing to receive a dribble handoff from Trevor Ariza at the top of the key.
The action was designed to create a switch, or at the very least, get the defense moving and otherwise occupied—playing into Harden’s strengths.
No one in the NBA is as good at using an opponent’s own momentum against them as Harden. The Houston Rockets’ superstar exists just a beat out of sync with the game’s normal rhythm and flow, working against the current to find a new angle to the rim, a trip to the free throw line, or a pass against the grain of a defender’s vision.
Of course, none of that matters if there is no current to ride.
The dribble handoff induced the switch; though losing Klay Thompson just to be defended by Draymond Green is hardly gaining an advantage—especially when Harden comes to a complete stop after receiving the ball. As Dwight Howard worked his way up to set a screen for Harden, Green positioned himself between the two, denying the option.
Harden turned the screen down, putting himself on an island with Green. One jab left, two jabs left. With no one moving, and the defense forming a shell around him, Harden put the ball on the floor going right, picking it up to fake a shot, and ceding any advantage he had when Green failed to bite on it.
With no options around him, Harden forced the shot, which fell harmlessly short.
“When they switch, we have to move more. Instead, we moved less, which made us easier to guard,” Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “They just sat with 10 eyes on the ball handler. We didn’t put enough pressure on them—move them around enough—so that our penetrators could penetrate and make plays for other people.”
That’s the word Harden used to describe the Rockets’ offense in the first half. It just as easily could have been used to describe the state of Houston’s organization. James Harden was bottled up through the first 24 minutes, scoring just four points on 2-for-9 shooting, no assists, and four turnovers as the Warriors took a 60-33 halftime lead. At every turn, defenders greeted Harden, not allowing him to gain traction in any particular direction. And for the first time in 148 games, Harden failed to attempt a single free throw.
“We didn’t have a good rhythm today,” Trevor Ariza said. “That’s pretty much it.”
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Rhythm implies patterns, it implies life. By contrast, the Golden State Warriors made the ball sing. Stephen Curry led all scorers with 24 points in under 20 minutes, shooting 8-for-13 from the field and 5-for-7 from three before tweaking an ankle that could leave him questionable for Game 2. Twenty-six of the Warriors’ 39 field goals were assisted; with 10 coming via hockey assists and 63 potential assists (the most of all teams from Saturday) per NBA.com’s tracking data. Houston had the fewest potential assists (32) among the teams that played Saturday, and four hockey assists.
Unable to flow offensively, Houston tried to drag Golden State through the mud. Bickerstaff opted to start Corey Brewer instead of Donatas Motiejunas with plans to switch assignments off screens, while sicking Patrick Beverley—whose intense defensive play can sometimes border on reckless—on Curry.
“Defensively, we thought it gave us more versatility to switch things,” Bickerstaff said. “Games we’ve watched, the way we’ve studied it, the teams that have had success vs. them defensively weren’t chasing them all over the floor. They just check in front of them. So we went that way.”
Of course, the Warriors have experience dealing with all strategies. They moved Curry off the ball at times, exploiting his gravity to create lanes for others; or freeing him up for catch-and-shoot three-pointers (all five of his threes were assisted on).
“That’s not the first time that that’s happened,” said Shaun Livingston, who smoothly picked up the point-guard duties when Curry left early in the second half.
“Probably won’t be the last. They’re out there competing as well. I think we should expect that; I’m sure Steph does.
“He’s our leader. He knows. He’s been in many situations like that before. And if anything, he rises to the challenge in the heat of the moment.”
It’s interesting to compare where these teams are considering where they met last year (the Western Conference Finals), and that they both started in a similar place.
In 2013, Curry was right there with Harden, generating his offense from nothing. Under Mark Jackson, the offensive schemes were unoriginal, and like Harden, Curry’s defensive ability was uninspiring. But where the Warriors and Curry have evolved with new schemes and improvements, Houston has regressed.
James Harden led the league with 588 isolations this season, scoring 0.92 points per possession while shooting 37.6 percent from the field. Throughout the regular season, his individual brilliance is enough to carry the offense. But in the playoffs, where an opponent has time to study tendencies, one can see the cogs at work, and find the seams to pull and unravel it all.
The Warriors, meanwhile, effortlessly blend actions off Curry pick and rolls, scoring 1.20 points per possession with him as the primary ball hander—leading the NBA.
Move or die. Houston faces odds far too long to overcome from their current standstill. Barring a miracle, they’re going to lose this series. The least they can do is build some momentum and start moving in the right direction.