It feels weird to say this about a team that lost a road playoff game by 29 points, but, man, the Rockets blew it. Or, anyway, that’s the glass-is-half-empty take: Even without Chris Paul, even on the road, even going against an unbelievably loaded Warriors team desperate to stave off elimination, the Rockets had a 17-point lead and just three quarters to go, and they blew it.
If every NBA game started with the road team up 17 points, and all they had to do to win was hold a lead for three quarters, road teams would win, what, 90 percent of games? The Rockets had to survive three quarters without getting outscored by 17 points, and what happened instead is they were outscored by 46 points. Without necessarily laying it at their feet as a failure—they were, after all, playing without their second-best player, and they were on the road, and the Warriors really are one of the great teams in NBA history—it is nonetheless true that they are not likely to find themselves in as advantageous a position again in Game 7. Maybe they’ll get another chance! But that was for sure a chance, and an excellent one, and a combination of dialed-in Warriors defense, blistering shooting from Klay Thompson and Steph Curry, and a putrid, nightmarish second-half offensive performance by the Rockets turned that excellent chance into a pile of shit.
The numbers are mind-boggling. The Rockets scored just 25 points in the second half Saturday night, and just nine points in the fourth quarter. The NBA and Basketball Reference say 25 points in a second half is just two points off the record for fewest points scored in a second half in NBA playoff history. Klay Thompson and Steph Curry outscored the Rockets in the second half, 36-25, but so did Thompson and Kevin Durant (30-25), and Thompson and Nick Young (26-25). The common theme is Klay Thompson, who was incredible:
Houston’s role players, on the other hand, spent the second half turning back into pumpkins and mice. Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, and Eric Gordon combined for 14 made buckets and 10 made threes in the first half; in the second half those three combined to make just one basket on 10 attempts. Clint Capela got up three shots in the entire game.
There’s no question that Houston’s early lead was built on a combination of unsustainable hot shooting by Houston’s role players and unsustainably poor play by the Warriors. Kevin Durant was awful in the first quarter—he had a soft layup punched away inside, he threw a live-ball turnover directly into Harden’s chest, he lost Trevor Ariza twice in transition, he missed five of his six shot attempts. Even if Durant continued to have an off night, it wouldn’t be anywhere near that bad for four quarters. Meanwhile, the Rockets shot eight of 12 from three, a rate they had no chance of matching the rest of the way. The Warriors were not going to shoot 14 percent from three over a game, nor were the Rockets going to shoot 75 percent. Houston’s margin after one was such, though, that they could afford to get roundly outplayed for three quarters and still win the game.
But the Warriors, at their best, are terrifying, and they accelerated from listless to their best from the start of the second quarter through the final buzzer. That runaway momentum is a lot to ask Houston’s role-players to resist. The burden of filling Chris Paul’s minutes seemed to wear on Eric Gordon, who vanished in the second half. The redistribution of Paul’s shots—shots that are so often generated via isolations, where Paul’s teammates are often doing nothing more than waiting in more-or-less stationary positions to catch and convert open looks—tilted way too heavily towards Trevor Ariza, who pumped up 18 shots, tied for the most he’s attempted in any game in three seasons. Without Paul around to probe the defense, the Warriors easily erased Capela as a pick-and-roll threat, and there’s only so much that can be expected from Luc Mbah a Moute and Tucker and Gerald Green, under the best of circumstances. Tucker and Mbah a Moute, in particular, are there to switch and defend and occasionally throw up a corner trey; even the absence of Chris Paul should ideally not increase their offensive workload, at all.
After it was over, the Rockets put a positive spin on their situation, reflecting upon how thrilled they should be to be so close to the Finals, having earned home court advantage in a one-game winner-take-all showdown with the Warriors. Per The Undefeated:
“If we are in this position, this is the best position to be in,” Rockets guard Eric Gordon told The Undefeated. “We’re definitely positive. We just have to play.”
And here’s Harden, per ESPN:
“I mean, if you asked us when we were in the Bahamas this summer, this team together [would have] a Game 7 to go to the Finals against the Warriors, we’ll take that,” said Harden, who finished with 32 points, 9 assists in 7 rebounds in 40 minutes.
The Rockets sans Chris Paul are nowhere near as good as the Warriors, certainly not 17 points better across a 48-minute game, let alone across a given quarter. But that’s just it—for as good as the Rockets might feel about finding themselves in a home Game 7 against these Warriors, Saturday night they found themselves up 3-2 in a series, and up 17 points on the scoreboard, and with just three quarters of basketball to play, against a Warriors team that often seems downright invincible. That was the position to feel good about. That’s as much found money as there is in the universe. But once the Warriors remembered the stakes, that was that. The Rockets will need all the luck in the world to beat the Warriors, and for one quarter they had all the luck in the world. And they lost in a damn blowout. All future positions are downgrades.