The Warriors and Rockets are stuck in a battle of Goliaths in the WCF but on one side of the court, they’re both fighting for the same thing.
Well, we’ve got ourselves a series.
Forty-eight hours after getting blown out in Game 3, the Houston Rockets walked into Oracle Arena and handed the Golden State Warriors their first home playoff loss since 2016. They withstood an early 12-0 deficit and a vintage third-quarter barrage from Steph Curry and, in doing so, re-earned the home-court advantage they worked so hard for in the regular season.
But, in playing against stereotypes, Houston won Game 4 on the defensive end. Mike D’Antoni described Tuesday night as the best defensive game they’ve ever played. They held Golden State to 39.3 percent from the field — 36.5 percent from Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson — and just 12 points in the decisive fourth quarter.
The Rockets were resilient all night long, willing the series back to even. But they know how unlikely it is that the über-talented Warriors stay down for long. Even with how well the Rockets defended in Game 4, the best-of-three series the Western Conference Finals has become will be decided on the other side of the court.
More so than Golden State (who’ve been mired in offensive inconsistency), Houston has maintained their identity throughout the series; an identity that relies on isolation more than any other team in the league. And yet, even with as effective as James Harden and Chris Paul are in ISO situations, the Warriors are happy to let them continue.
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During the regular season, Houston was the most isolation-heavy offense in the league. They ran ISOs in 14.5 percent of their offensive sets, a full 4.0 percent higher than the second most ISO-prone team, the Oklahoma City Thunder.
As a general rule, isolations are one of the least efficient plays an offense can run. Being able to get buckets out of isolations when a play breaks down is vital, but ISO-heavy offenses are usually inefficient. And that trend held true for the 29 NBA teams who averaged 1.0 or fewer PPP (points per possession) on isolations.
If you haven’t already guessed, Houston is that 30th team.
The Rockets scored 1.12 PPP on isolations during the regular season, far and away the best average in the history of NBA.com’s database. While Houston has talented isolation scorers up and down their roster — including one with ISO in his name — their historic efficiency really comes from two guys.
Of the 47 players in the league with 100+ isolations during the regular season, Harden both averaged the most (10.0 ISOs/game) and was the most efficient (1.22 PPP). In fact, he was more efficient in isolation than JJ Redick was on spot-ups. But, even with as good as Harden was — and he was historically good — Paul was right behind him, finishing second in the league with 1.10 PPP.
Harden and Paul’s one-two punch was devastating during the regular season, propelling Houston to the 11th highest ORtg in league history. Therefore you’d expect the Warriors to try to take Houston out of their comfort zone, to force the Rockets to win another way. But really, the Warriors are happy to let Houston run ISOs to their heart’s content.
While Golden State wasn’t an outstanding isolation defense during the regular season, they got more than their share of practice. The Warriors faced ISOs on 9.2 percent of plays, the second highest rate in the league. While their defense was stronger in other areas, the Warriors held their own on isolations and limited opponents to just 0.87 PPP (12th best in the league).
And that’s why the Warriors are content to let Houston ISO. If they limit Houston to between 1.1 and 1.0 PPP on isolations (still good enough to lead the league), the math jumps in the Warriors’ favor. And in Game 1, we saw that plan work to perfection.
In Game 1, the Rockets stuck with what got them there: Harden isolations. He was outstanding all night long, putting up 41 points on 24 shots and adding seven assists to just four turnovers. The Warriors defended Harden well all night and it had no effect. He got whatever he wanted.
But in the end, it didn’t matter. The Warriors won Game 1, 119-106, despite Harden’s fantastic night because the other Rockets couldn’t get going. They scored just 65 points on an eFG% of 47.5 percent. Harden’s isolations got him his fantastic numbers, but they made it relatively easy for the Warriors to keep everyone else in check.
In Game 2 the Rockets had a slightly different strategy. They still hunted for mismatches with Curry or Kevon Looney switched onto Harden and Paul, but they used those advantages to help others. Instead of getting shots for themselves, Harden and Paul forced the Warriors to commit, which created open shots for the other Rockets.
Houston won Game 2 by 22 points thanks to three key role players having career nights. Trevor Ariza, PJ Tucker, and Eric Gordon combined to put up 68 points and shoot 69.7 percent from the field. Ariza and Tucker couldn’t miss and Gordon hit several unbelievable threes, but as ridiculous as it sounds, the Warriors will live with that.
They played decent defense most of the night and Houston’s role players made shots anyway. With as historically great as Houston’s offense is, they are going to have games like that a couple of times over a seven-game series. No matter how good you are defensively, there’s not much you can do to stop it. All you can do it come back and do better next time.
When looking at Games 3 and 4, the two games look dramatically different. Game 3 saw the Warriors win by 41 and Game 4 was a rock fight that the Rockets pulled out by three points. It would be hard to create two more different outcomes if you tried. But when you look closer, the two games have a lot of similarities for the Warrior defense.
Houston scored under 100 points in both games, something they only did eight times during the regular season. They also shot under 40 percent from the field in both games which only happened nine times in the regular season. It’s hard to argue that the Rockets had a worse offensive two-game stretch at any point during the season and yet, they left Oakland with the momentum and the split they desperately needed.
While it may be tempting to conclude from Game 4 that the Rockets have now grabbed control of the series, I think the final score is hiding the more important takeaway. The Warriors have, for three out of the four games, figured out how to defend the Rockets.
Make no bones about it, the Rockets can absolutely win this series. They have more than enough firepower to win a shootout and Game 4 proved they could win a tough, low-scoring battle even on the road. But, the closest thing to a constant in this series filled with inconsistency, has been the Warrior defense.
Health will be huge for both teams as Chris Paul appears to be returning to 100 percent while Andre Iguodala and Thompson have suffered leg injuries for the Warriors. Both teams seem due for an offensive explosion and a great night from a secondary star could be the deciding factor in this series. Regardless of how it turns out, this series seems to be building into an instant classic before our eyes and will be one we are talking about for a long time to come.
Edited by Emily Berman.
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