May 23, 2018, 5:51 pm
Back in late December, Gerald Green was sitting on his couch in Houston, waiting for a call. Not even six months later, he’s making plays like this for his hometown team in a series that seems bound decide the title.
The hyperactivity that forces Green to tap into his world-class explosiveness and block Steph Curry’s jumper from behind in the first place can’t be discounted. The Houston Rockets were absolutely everywhere defensively in their stunning Game 4 victory over the Golden State Warriors, and a renewed sense of vigor from the top to bottom of Mike D’Antoni‘s seven-man rotation is the biggest reason why.
James Harden was credited with seven deflections on Tuesday, more than any other player has had so far in this series – one that includes the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, the greatest defensive point guard of his generation, a genius stalwart who won Finals MVP for his yeoman’s work guarding LeBron James and two of the league’s most productive shot-blockers. The Rockets had 47 total box outs, beating their previous playoff-high by 10. Five different players defended Curry for at least 12 possessions, none notching more than 14. Just 10.9 percent of the Warriors’ possessions began in transition, per Cleaning the Glass, their lowest mark of the Conference Finals by more than four percentage points.
Pretty much whenever a play required multiple efforts to get a stop or a score, Houston made them. In the second quarter, during a sustained run that allowed the Rockets to overcome a deep hole, Clint Capela stymied Kevin Durant at the rim, recovered in time to effect Kevon Looney‘s put-back, then tapped the ball to Eric Gordon to initiate a fast break. Midway through the fourth quarter, as Houston slowly chipped away at another double-digit deficit, Capela and Trevor Ariza grabbed consecutive offensive rebounds on the same trip down – one more than Golden State, short-handed by circumstance rather than choice, managed throughout the entire fourth quarter.
Capela, by the way, played just 24 minutes on Tuesday night. That left Tucker on the floor for a team-high 44 minutes, barely more than Harden, and just a couple minutes more than Chris Paul and Ariza. The wild improbability of Tuesday night’s win, then, can be summed up like this: Houston had four players on the court for at least 40 minutes and missed its last five shots from the field, but escaped Oracle Arena, where Golden State hadn’t lost a playoff game in almost two years, with perhaps the most impressive win of the entire season anyway.
“It’s not like we have a magic formula,” Mike D’Antoni said after the game. “It’s just we have guys that believe.”
There is no antidote for the Warriors. They entered the postseason as heavy title favorites for a reason, and many believe they remain as much despite heading into a Game 5 that begins a best-of-three hosted at Toyota Center. No team in basketball comes close to matching Golden State’s combination of star power and two-way talent. But dating back to this time of year in 2015, a lifetime before Durant joined a 73-win juggernaut in the midst of a dynasty, the surest means of slowing down the Warriors was always forcing their ancillary offensive players to shoulder a bigger scoring burden.
The Cleveland Cavaliers do it every June, taking an extra step off the likes of Green, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and, most famously and formerly, Harrison Barnes when Golden State’s brightest stars have the ball. The Rockets worked that gambit into their all-switch defensive approach before Game 4, but Iguodala’s absence let D’Antoni and defensive coordinator Jeff Bzdelik take it a step further than before.
Which brings us back to Green’s high-flying block on Curry. What makes Golden State even more dangerous than the sum of its parts suggests is the ability to manufacture efficient looks out of random screens and cuts away from the ball, most often in natural flow of the offense. A back-cut like Curry’s is normally a shot at the rim, or initiates a quick-hitting passing sequence that ends in an open three elsewhere. Not this time.
After Livingston sets a screen for Curry to goad a switch from Harden, Gordon elects to remain in the middle of the floor rather than follow Livingston, a non 3-point shooter, to an already-crowded short corner. His presence makes Curry stop his cut in its tracks, allowing Green to recover from behind. The block saved an open shot, a two-point jumper at that, but Gordon’s positioning is what kept Curry from producing the look for himself or his teammates that the Warriors normally conjure in similar situations.
Golden State’s alarming lack of consistent long-range shooters outside of Curry, Thompson and Durant is well-known by now. Its bench players shot 33.3 percent from three during the regular season, third-worst in the league, and made their fewest amount of triples since 2015. Livingston has always been a part of the problem, one the Warriors are happy to live with due to the versatility he otherwise provides. But Iguodala’s injury and the Warriors’ lack of quality wing depth – brought on by that odd surplus of centers – compelled Kerr to not only play Jordan Bell 17 minutes, easily the most of any big man other than Green and Looney so far in this series, but also slot the rookie next to either of those guys every second he was on the floor.
Though Iguodala is no knockdown shooter, he’s connecting on 35.5 percent of his 3-point attempts during the playoffs, an encouraging number. More importantly, especially against the increasingly-downsized Rockets, his health grants Kerr the luxury of going small without having to worry much about fatigue or foul trouble. Golden State doesn’t just lose its top perimeter defender and an innate playmaker absent Iguodala. His injury also cost Kerr the lineup flexibility that makes abandoning role players away from the ball a far more tenuous proposition for the opposing defense.
It’s much easier for Harden to defend Curry, for instance, when the latter sees help in the paint before he even begins his drive. That was the case twice in the last three minutes of Game 4, as Gordon abandoned Looney to clog driving lanes early, confusing Curry and leading to difficult jumpers from he and Thompson that were both off the mark.
It’s not like Houston saved that strategy for crunch time, either. D’Antoni’s game plan was to exploit the advantages presented by Iguodala’s absence at every opportunity. Whenever Golden State went to its bench, bringing in more non-shooters, the Rockets’ help defenders were ready to pounce early and often.
With Paul ignoring Livingston to crowd the strong elbow and Bell’s lack of shooting range keeping Gordon in the paint, just where is Curry supposed to go here?
Iguodala isn’t a cure-all. After so much success making Curry and Durant see extra color in Game 4, the Rockets are likely to be bolder daring Iguodala and Green to shoot going forward. A healthy roster also doesn’t mean Kerr can cut Bell’s minutes entirely, especially if Iguodala, upgraded from doubtful to questionable before Tuesday’s game, is a step slow. Still, the sense of calm and control he inherently adds could go a long way toward breaking the Warriors out of the offensive rut they’re in headed back to Houston.
“Andre’s a huge part of what we do,” Curry said. You’d love to have him out there, but it’s a long series, and you want him healthy, able to really make an impact when he’s out there. So hopefully that happens in Game 5.”