• The Houston Rockets took the Golden State Warriors best punch in Game 1 of this Western Conference finals series. They responded with a haymaker of their own.
• Critics said something had to change after the Rockets were blown out in Game 1. Coach Mike D’Antoni thought otherwise. He was right.
• James Harden and Eric Gorden each scored 27 points, but Houston won on a balanced performance up-and-down the roster, including a career-high 22 from P.J. Tucker.
HOUSTON — The two days between the Golden State Warriors taking Game 1 of the Western Conference finals and the start of Game 2 at Toyota Center on Wednesday night were dominated by talk of the Houston Rockets needing to do something different — particularly offensively.
Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni, however, was having none of it.
“We are who we are, and we’re pretty good at it,” D’Antoni said after Tuesday’s practice.
“We can’t get off who we are. Embrace it. Just be better of who we are and don’t worry if somebody else solves the puzzle a different way. . . . We know our strengths and we’ve just got to do it better.”
His message clearly resonated with his team.
Knowing a loss would almost certainly mean the end of their season, the Rockets put on an inspired performance Wednesday, leading virtually the entire game and getting contributions from up-and-down the roster in a 127-105 victory, knotting the series at a game apiece.
Instead of the series shifting to the Bay Area with the Warriors leading two games to none, the days leading up to Game 3 Sunday night will now be spent analyzing what lies ahead, rather than writing the obituaries of the Rockets’ impressive season.
As Game 2 tipped off, there were real doubts about how the Rockets would respond to having spent the past seven months working toward earning home-court advantage in this series, only for the Warriors to steal it back with a series-opening victory Monday night.
One person who didn’t have those doubts, though, was D’Antoni.
“Yeah, we got a little rattled with ourselves and we can’t do that,” he said. “We’ve got to be able to absorb some body blows. They got us a little bit. We sagged a little bit with our spirit.
“That won’t happen Wednesday. We’re going to have a heck of a good battle on Wednesday.”
He was certainly right about that.
Houston needed contributions from its role players, as neither James Harden (27 points on 9-for-24 shooting) nor Chris Paul (16 points, four rebounds, six assists) had massive games.
In Game 1, P.J. Tucker and Trevor Ariza combined to score nine points on 3-for-11 shooting in 58 minutes. In Game 2, those two had 41 points on 15-for-18 shooting. Eric Gordon added 27 off the bench, and while center Clint Capela didn’t put up huge numbers (five points and 10 rebounds), he was a factor in the paint that Golden State struggled to deal with throughout the game.
The Warriors, meanwhile, got very little from everyone other than Kevin Durant. While Durant had a second straight huge game, scoring 38 points on 13-for-22 shooting, his teammates struggled. Stephen Curry looked off for a second straight game, finishing with 16 points, seven rebounds and seven assists but shooting 7 for 19, including 1 for 8 from three. Klay Thompson went 3 for 11 from the field for eight points. Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala both looked scared to shoot at times — both beyond the arc and when surrounded by Capela in the paint — which allowed Houston to essentially ignore them both.
The Rockets blew the game open in the second quarter, going on a 20-7 run to turn a five-point lead into an 18-point advantage and settling on a 64-50 lead at halftime. It appeared Durant was going to try to lift the Warriors back into the game himself in the third quarter, and he nearly did, scoring 18 of Golden State’s 29 points in the period.
The problem, though, was Houston still managed to outscore Golden State 31-29 in the quarter, thanks to the rest of the Warriors scoring 11 points on 5-for-14 shooting.
Golden State made one final push in the fourth, getting to within 11 points after Iguodala made 1 of 2 free throws with 8:17 remaining to make it 100-89 in favor of Houston. But the Rockets then went on an 11-0 run — powered by three-pointers from Gordon, Tucker and finally Harden — that made it 111-89.
That proved to be the knockout blow Houston needed — one it wasn’t clear they would be able to provide just a couple of hours earlier.
Live in-game updates:
One stat to always watch with the Warriors: the shooting of Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala. Through two games in this series, neither has been a factor.
That’s a problem for Golden State.
After combining to go 3 for 8 in Game 2, including missing both of their attempts from three, they are now 4 for 9 in Game 2, including going 0 for 3 from three. Both have short-armed attempted layups in the paint, and don’t look confident shooting the ball.
When that happens, Golden State becomes a beatable team. Combine that with Houston’s role players exploding in Game 2, and there’s how Houston has a 19-point lead with seven minutes to go.
There were a real question heading into this game about whether the Rockets would be able to withstand falling behind in this series. Given how Houston has exited the playoffs in the past, most notably last season’s no-show against the San Antonio Spurs without Kawhi Leonard here in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals, it was a fair question, too.
Question asked, question answered.
The Rockets have answered the bell in every possible way in Game 2. They’ve gotten significant help from their role players. They have played much better defense. They’ve played with much more pace. They’ve taken every punch from the Warriors, and responded with one of their own.
The result? Houston leads 95-79 after three quarters and is well on its way to evening this series at a game apiece.
Houston is up 64-50 at halftime, riding hot three-point shooting to a big lead.
The Rockets are 10 for 23 from three — 7 for 12 when accounting for everyone besides Chris Paul and James Harden, who has 14 points but has gone 5 for 14 from the floor and 2- for 8 from three. It’s been that shooting from the others, in particular, that’s allowed Houston to jump out to this lead. If Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon are combining for 42 points in a half, that’s an outstanding sign for Houston.
Houston, which led by as many as 19, also has outscored Golden State 10-2 in fast break points. That’s a benefit both of the Warriors throwing the ball around — they have 11 turnovers — but also Houston clearly making it a priority to play faster.
Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker combined for nine points in Game 1.
They already have 18 in 18 minutes of Game 2.
That is why Houston is winning 46-35 here at the halfway mark of the second quarter. When Ariza, Tucker and Eric Gordon are making shots, the Rockets are a far different team — which is why Golden State was so committed to staying home on Houston’s shooters in the first game.
They’ve lost them at times in Game 2, and the result has allowed that trio to get going. Tucker has already buried three triples, while Eric Gordon has two. Houston, as a team, is shooting 8 for 18 from deep.
For Houston to win, that’s what needs to happen. So far, the Rockets are getting it.
The Rockets have done in Game 2 what they needed to in Game 1: broken this game open and built a big lead.
By raining in threes, Houston now has its biggest lead of the game, and the series, in taking a 38-26 advantage with 8:34 remaining in the second quarter. Houston has already put up 15 threes — and made six of them. Golden State, meanwhile, has gone 1 for 8 from deep.
One thing to watch for when Golden State struggles is its turnovers, and the Warriors now have eight in the game — leading to nine Rockets points.
Houston turned up its defense to end the first quarter, holding Golden State scoreless for more than four minutes to allow the Rockets to take a 26-21 lead after one.
After a Kevon Looney dunk with 4:30 left, Golden State missed its next seven shots before an and-one layup by Stephen Curry with 29.8 seconds left in the quarter. In the meantime, Houston went on an 8-0 run to break open a game that had gone back-and-forth throughout the opening minutes.
Clint Capela, who is on pace to play far more than the 30 minutes he played in Game 1, now also has two fouls, though — joining Kevin Durant and Chris Paul with that distinction. But the Rockets have responded well to being down 0-1 in the series and are playing with the inspired effort their coach, Mike D’Antoni, predicted they would.
Luc Mbah a Moute was expected to play a pivotal role in this series. As one of the NBA’s better wing defenders, he has plenty to keep him busy between trying to slow down Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
But for Mbah a Moute to be effective, he needs to be able to hit shots — thus giving Golden State at least some reason to pay attention to him. So far, that’s not going so well.
After going 0 for 6 in Game 1, including missing multiple layups and a pair of threes, Mbah a Moute has already missed three shots early in Game 2 — two layups and a three, which was blocked by Draymond Green.
If he can’t give Houston anything, that’s going to place an even bigger load on P.J. Tucker and Trevor Ariza. Meanwhile, Kevin Durant has now joined Chris Paul with two fouls. The officials have been calling things pretty tight early. It feels like foul trouble will be an issue.
Game 2 of Warriors-Rockets has started off quite sloppily.
Within the first five minutes of the game, Golden State has already committed five turnovers, while Houston has committed three. Golden State’s miscues have been particularly ugly, with several bad miscommunications on passes leading to multiple passes going flying out of bounds with no Warrior within range of them.
More importantly, while Houston is off to a 13-10 lead, Chris Paul has already picked up a pair of fouls. In the right decision, Mike D’Antoni has chosen to leave Paul in the game. Yes, it’s a risk, but the Rockets need Paul on the court to have a chance in this game. Meanwhile, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant have each picked up a foul early for Golden State.
Game 2 of the Western Conference finals between the Warriors and Rockets is a few hours away.
Here are a few things to watch for when it begins:
— There was a lot of (uninformed) talk about how Houston needs to stop running so many isolation plays in Game 2. Here’s the thing: Anyone who said that clearly didn’t watch the Rockets play this season.
That probably sounds harsh to some, but it’s true. Houston’s entire offense — one that tied with Golden State as the league’s best this season — is predicated on isolating either James Harden or Chris Paul against a defender over and over and over again.
So, no, Houston shouldn’t change its entire offense after one game. But what should it do? Play more like Mike D’Antoni’s old “Seven Seconds Or Less” Phoenix Suns.
How so? By getting into actions quicker. Harden and Paul are both deliberate players, and like milking the shot clock down before making a play. The problem with that is it leads to them holding the ball until the end of the shot clock, and then basically having to shoot. What they should be doing is getting a matchup they like and immediately attacking it, to set up either a shot for themselves or, potentially, shots for others. By running down the clock, the Rockets essentially gave up the latter option.
— Clint Capela needs to play more.
Capela played 30 minutes in Game 1, despite failing to pick up a single foul against him. That’s just not enough minutes.
The only way Houston has a chance in this series is if the Rockets can make Capela into enough of a force that Golden State has to shift its plans to stop him — much like what happened to Golden State against the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016, when Steven Adams took them apart inside.
In Capela’s 30 minutes on the court in Game 1, Houston had a defensive rating of 116.6 points per 100 possessions. In the 18 minutes he was on the bench, Houston had a defensive rating of 132.6.
Obviously 116.6 isn’t good. But Houston got absolutely destroyed when Capela sat. That’s why his minutes have to be higher in Game 2.
If they’re not? It’s going to be tough to see a path for Houston to win this game.
— The scary thing for Houston about Game 1 was that both Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson didn’t play particularly well — yet Golden State won the game going away.
Curry’s status, in particular, will be interesting to monitor in Game 2. He’s still coming back from his sprained MCL, which now happened about seven-and-a-half weeks ago. His effort level was there in Game 1; his usual explosion was not. Thompson, on the other hand, missed several open looks from three — and still had 28 points.
Knowing Curry, he’ll be better in Game 2. And, knowing Thompson, he won’t miss those same open looks again. If both of those things happen … it could be a long night for the Rockets.
Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors Game 3, 8 p.m., TNT (Series tied, 1-1)
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