Who didn't see this Game 3 blowout coming?
The Western Conference Finals was shifting to Golden State, with the series tied at one game apiece. It appears that Houston's second-game shocker, 127-105, made everyone forget that the Warriors actually did their job and stole homecourt advantage from the top-seeded Rockets. In the first place, the lone victory in Clutch City came as a surprise because the Dubs entered the matchup—and the 2018 playoffs in general—as the clear favorites to repeat.
People seem to have gotten carried away by the historic season that Houston has had, Chris Paul's seamless transition, Clint Capela's rapid development, and James Harden's looming Most Valuable Player trophy. All fair points, but are rendered null and void when you're facing a team like the Warriors—led by four All-Stars (Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green) and a healthy coach Steve Kerr, deceptively deep, and more importantly, the reigning champions. Cue in the "Houston, we have a problem" headlines.
What happened to the Rockets is similar to that of their East counterpart, the Toronto Raptors, who also finished number one in the conference but were swept by LeBron James, and was eliminated by the Cleveland Cavaliers for the third straight year. Simply put, it didn't matter how good a collective was during the regular season if they had the worst postseason matchup. After all, the summer is when the serious (Boston Celtics) and sham (Oklahoma City Thunder) contenders are exposed.
But we're not taking away that sliver of hope from Houston, since we believe those 4-1 wins over the deadly Minnesota Timberwolves and disciplined Utah Jazz were no fluke. Make no mistake about it: coach Mike D'Antoni's recalibrated run-and-gun is as potent as ever, evident in the hot scoring streaks that the Rockets blow away opponents with in the earlier rounds. It just so happens that they are up against another group of snipers, only on steroids.
D'Antoni described Houston's play in the last match as "soft," to which Harden and Paul couldn't agree more. For a team that prides itself on elite perimeter defenders such as Trevor Ariza and PJ Tucker, the Rockets allowed the Golden State superstars to put up double figures in their two losses. In the second game, only Durant (38 points) and Curry (16 points) were able to do it, the latter even going 1-of-8 from the three-point line.
And because Houston didn't take advantage of the two-time MVP's shooting woes at home (2-13 from 3pt in Games 1 and 2), it has to prioritize extending and tightening the defensive coverage of everyone else but Durant. The matchup nightmare is having his way (33 ppg) with the entire opposing squad, so why not just focus on shutting down the rest of the Warriors, like in their second match? If what it takes is for Ariza, Tucker, and Paul to get in Curry, Thompson, and Green's faces, then they should feel free to spare technical fouls.
For this to work, though, the Rockets offense has to be flawless and free-flowing. First, they should exploit one of their few positional edges and unlock Capela. The Swiss center is among the few bigs active enough to keep up with Golden State's "Death Lineup," and he hasn't been much of a factor (10 ppg, 8 rpg, 1 bpg) vs the Dubs. Second, more players need to get it going aside from Harden, Paul, Capela, and Eric Gordon. Whether it's Joe Johnson or Gerald Green, D'Antoni must find that fifth option for his wards to outgun the Warriors.
In the end, Clutch City's Finals hopes rest on its biggest stars, Harden and Paul. After a valiant stand in the opener (41 and 23 points, respectively), both All-Stars have been rather pedestrian, which simply won't cut it against the defending champs. Of all people, the Beard and CP3 should be the most hungry at this point with their fair share of playoff heartbreak, but doesn't look like it with the way they're playing. What we're saying is a series of inspiring performances from the two leaders will exorcise those demons and rub off on their supporting cast.
Granted, Houston may play its best basketball and still lose to Golden State. Harden may drop 50 points in their next two matches, Johnson may have another game-winner, Tucker may hold Curry to his career-worst output in the postseason, and it will still be the Warriors occupying the throne come June. This means that the Rockets will need more than their concept of a perfect series to successfully unseat the Dubs.