Thirty-six point two. That’s the percentage of the 3,470 three-point shots attempted by the Houston Rockets in the regular season that went through the hoop. It’s the number that should have lifted the Rockets, a team that spent the entire season building a 65-win monument to the power and truth of numbers, to the NBA Finals. But 36.2 percent was nowhere to be found last night, and instead the Rockets are left with another collection of numbers that tell the story of how they lost Game 7: 7-of-44, 0-of-27, 101-92.
At some point during this series you’ve probably heard someone say that the Rockets were “built to beat the Warriors.” Part of what is meant by that is that the Rockets have a long, switchy defense that can do a better job than most of tossing some gunk into the Warriors’ offensive gears. But it also meant that the Rockets were particularly constructed to withstand those furious Golden State runs that tend to brush opponents aside within a matter of minutes. Imagine what it must feel like to try and make up a 10- or 12-point deficit against the Rockets when 36.2 percent is holding true. You bring the ball up the court, run an intricate offensive set, work hard to get a layup at the rim. The Rockets take possession, James Harden throws 32 dribbles at his opponent, then he either steps back and sinks a three or drives and kicks to an open man in the corner. He will keep doing this as long as he has the use of both his hands and at least one good eye, and there’s not much you can do to stop it, and the Rockets’ lead will continue to grow in increments.
This was the unenviable position the Warriors found themselves in after last night’s first half, in which they got the absolute shit beaten out of them by a Rockets team that refused to surrender a single rebound without a fight and made every box-out feel like a hammer blow. Draymond Green and Kevin Durant wanted no part of Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker, Klay Thompson had been neutralized by foul trouble, and all the Rockets needed to wrap up the game was do the one thing they were specifically designed to do: make some threes. Not even a lot of threes, just some! This was a team that had earned the top seed in the conference through a strict, historic adherence to the guiding philosophy of “just shoot a lot of threes and make some of them.” The Finals were just 24 minutes away, and the Rockets were in a position they were specifically constructed to thrive in.
And then 0-of-27 happened. How do you explain this Rockets team missing 27 consecutive three-point shots? The numbers say it should have been all but impossible, and the fact that it actually happened will only grow more unbelievable with time. This is the bad beat story to end all bad beat stories. This is the bad beat story that starts with pocket kings and ends with being eaten by a bear after the flop.
Maybe Harden got taken out of his game by those missed foul calls. Maybe P.J. Tucker and Trevor Ariza really were thrown off by having Zaza Pachulia screaming in their ears during every corner three. Maybe the Rockets were tired. Maybe Chris Paul would have made a few of those shots. Maybe the rim at that end of the court was less forgiving. Maybe there was a breeze.
The only thing to really say in the face of a result as shocking and unlikely as this one is to acknowledge that sometimes shit just happens. It’s a heartening thing to consider, for anyone who isn’t a Rockets fan, because it’s a reminder that one of the more annoying cliches that pundits like to shout is actually one of the truest: That’s why you play the games. No matter how much the Rockets may wish otherwise, basketball games do not unfold within a computer simulation, and the percentages, no matter how inescapable they have previously proven themselves, do not always yield the expected results.
Strangely, watching the Rockets bury their season under 27 bricks reminded me of watching Kevin Love lock up Steph Curry at the end of Game 7 of the 2016 Finals. In both cases I was witnessing something that, according to everything I understood to be true about the players involved, should not have been happening. There was no world in which Kevin Love could possibly stay in front of Steph Curry with the game on the line, until there was. There was no world in which the Rockets could miss 27 threes in a row, until there was. The chance to be there and witness the moment in which everything gets upended, and to see what could never have been true suddenly become so, is a particular thrill that only sports can provide. I don’t know if I exactly enjoyed watching the Rockets be brutally betrayed by their own calculations, but I felt fortunate to be seeing it happen.
I’ll try to remember that feeling as we head towards a fourth consecutive Finals matchup between the Warriors and Cavaliers, in which a Warriors victory seems even more preordained than it did this time last year. I’ll remember Kevin Love rotating those hips and moving those feet, and I’ll remember 0-of-27. Sometimes shit happens, and shit happening is fun to watch.