“He’s been attacking since he was at Artesia High School,” Durant said of Harden, with evident respect for his fellow gunslinger and former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate. “Ain’t nothing changed but the jersey.”
Harden’s approach hasn’t changed, but the lineup configurations around him certainly have in recent years. Once burdened by cramped quarters in Oklahoma City and Dwight Howard post-ups during his early time in Houston, Harden’s shooting ability and isolation skills have led his franchise on a careful pursuit of maximum spacing. While the Rockets have successfully paired Harden with an athletic lob finisher in center Clint Capela, they have also set about refining their small-ball lineups to give Harden as much room as possible to work his on-ball magic.
The latest result? An ultramodern lineup composed of four guards — Harden, Chris Paul, Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers — plus forward P.J. Tucker at center. As recently as five years ago, even forward-thinking executives and coaches would have blanched at the idea of utilizing five players listed at 6-foot-6 or shorter on the court at the same time. Nevertheless, this group has proved its collective worth against the biggest test in basketball: the Warriors’ vaunted “Hamptons 5” lineup, which features Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Draymond Green and Durant.
“They’ve got their Hamptons 5 and we’ve got our South Beach 5,” Mike D’Antoni said, uncertain whether his impromptu attempt at a glamorous nickname would stick. The Rockets coach turned to that lineup in the final minutes to close out victories in Games 3 and 4.
Golden State’s quintet is one of the most star-studded in recent history, while Houston’s is less superteam than super hungry. Harden and Paul are seeking championship validation, while Gordon, Rivers and Tucker are well-traveled vets who have found ideal fits in deftly crafted roles. Gordon is the explosive playmaker with deep range. Rivers, who signed with Houston in December, is a swashbuckling pest. And Tucker is the king of dirty work and so-called winning plays.
Together, they make for a stark contrast with their higher-profile opponents.
“They’ve got a lot of middle linebackers on that team,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr quipped. “They’re sturdy. We look like volleyball players, long and lean.”
Most teams wouldn’t dare sacrifice so much size and length inside against Golden State, lest Green command the glass and Durant shoot over the top of hopeless defenders. But the Rockets aren’t most teams, and Tucker isn’t most players. The 2006 second-round pick has been a crucial X-factor in Houston’s wins, harassing Durant with his physical defense, extending possessions by tracking down offensive rebounds and generally outworking Golden State’s big men.
“All the [TV] commercials aren’t about guys that defend; they’re about guys that make shots and dunk,” Paul said of Tucker. “What he’s doing is work on both ends of the court. I’m glad people are getting a chance to see, front and center, that basketball isn’t just all about offense. You can be a star in your role guarding.”
Tucker’s presence unlocks multiple strategic possibilities for the Rockets. First, his capable three-point shooting keeps the paint completely open for Harden, who led all scores with 38 points in Game 4. Second, his knack for creating second-chance opportunities by racing in from the corner to corral long rebounds grants Houston’s perimeter-oriented offense more chances to connect from deep.
Third, his ability to hound Durant and handle smaller guards allows Houston to switch every time Golden State sets a screen. This switching defense has been key to bottling up Curry and Thompson, who are accustomed to finding daylight more easily when they face less versatile defenders.
“If you let Klay and Steph run around and shoot threes, you have no chance,” said Harden, who has been eliminated by Golden State in three of the past four postseasons. “The only chance we have is to get into their bodies and make every shot contested.”
Although Curry, Thompson and Durant are three of the most revered outside shooters in NBA history, Golden State’s spacing suffers at times because of the presence of Iguodala and Green. Iguodala runs hot and cold, while Green has been unreliable from outside in these playoffs.
Houston’s small lineup counters with five shooting threats, all of whom are also trustworthy one-on-one defenders. Harden has made meaningful strides on the defensive end, while the addition of Rivers has brought a fearlessness that was missing last season.
“He’s going to play his butt off,” Harden said of Rivers, who logged 33 minutes in Game 4 off the bench. “He’s not scared of anybody on the court. He’s going to take the big shot. He’s going to guard the biggest guys and the smallest guys. Those are the types of players you want to go to war with in the postseason.”
The Rockets outrebounded the Warriors 38-28 in Game 3 and 50-43 in Game 4. Kerr and his players acknowledged that the Rockets have more experience and a better feel for tracking long rebounds given that they easily led the league in three-point attempts this season.
Durant also noted that the Warriors often exhaust themselves trying to do two things at once: providing help to discourage the Rockets’ guards from driving while also getting back to their man to box out once outside shots go up.
“They shoot long three-pointers, and those rebounds are long,” said Durant, who led the Warriors with 34 points in Game 4. “The ball is bouncing a little bit different. We have to make sure we hit guys [to box out] as soon as the ball goes up. It’s impossible to focus on that every single play as a defender out there.”
DeMarcus Cousins’s leg injury has robbed Kerr of one possible adjustment to Houston’s increasing reliance on small ball. Although Golden State has generally fared better without its imposing center, Cousins’s low-post scoring and rebounding ability could have been deployed in doses to punish Houston’s lack of size around the hoop.
To make matters worse, Kerr’s bench has delivered scant production in this series and is lacking in skilled big men and two-way wing players. That leaves the Warriors to hope that the Hamptons 5 can hold up under the weight of a heavy minutes load against a worthy opponent.
“[The Rockets] are doing whatever it takes to win and we’re just kind of rolling in there [lackadaisically],” Green said. “They’re slamming us. If we change our mind-set, we’ll be just fine. The first two games, it was the opposite. We were taking it to them. That’s the difference in this series. It starts with me.”