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HOUSTON — Kevin Durant and James Harden hoarded Game 1’s limelight. In the Golden State Warriors’ 119-106 win over the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals on Monday, those two leviathans combined for 35 percent of the game’s scoring, each hitting increasingly difficult shots and transcending to a new sport entirely. But while those two awed us all and the dueling point guards (Stephen Curry and Chris Paul) exchanged quieter-than-usual nights, it was everyone else who decided the game’s final outcome.
This reveals the Rockets’ math problem that everyone understood coming into this heavyweight series. Golden State boasts a legitimate Big Four, plus a few battle-proven veterans who share a couple pieces of jewelry from the past three seasons. While the Rockets plucked Chris Paul from Hollywood last summer to place him next to James Harden, and even as they shored up their rotation with reliable role players, they don’t boast as many stars. Four > two. They can’t change that. “They are who they are,” Luc Mbah a Moute told SB Nation. “We are who we are.”
Who the Rockets are is a sensational 65-win team — yes, team — that held home-court advantage coming into this series, only to lose it Monday night. All year, they acknowledged that their path would likely go through the Warriors when the postseason came. General manager Daryl Morey said it even more explicitly: “We’re basically obsessed with ‘How do we beat the Warriors?’”
But Game 1 wasn’t the mark they hoped to leave, despite Harden dipping into his nitrous tank for a devastating 41. If the sport was a two-on-two league, then he and Paul would have played Durant and Curry to a standstill.
The problem is, of course, that it’s not. From the third man to the ninth, Houston was thoroughly outplayed. That simply didn’t work well enough. “Obviously, everybody wants to be at their best, it’s the conference finals,” Mbah a Moute said. “You want to play at your best, you want to be at your best, it doesn’t matter who you are.” Mbah a Moute is one role player who didn’t. He went 0-of-6 from the field, finished minus-16, his second-worst plus-minus all year, and admitted to ESPN after the game he’s still not fully trusting his twice-injured shoulder.
He certainly wasn’t the only Rockets’ role-player who didn’t play up to snuff. P.J. Tucker was 0-of-3, and Trevor Ariza’s eight points were almost outnumbered by his five fouls that limited him to 23 minutes. Gerald Green’s two triples were evened out by several costly blown switches, and he wasn’t the only one to miss a few assignments. (“You can’t make mistakes against them,” Mbah a Moute said.) Mike D’Antoni tried Ryan Anderson as a backup center in the first half and Nene in the second, and neither did anything meaningful. At least Eric Gordon scored 15, though it looked neither pretty nor sustainable.
“I think collectively as a team, no matter how many minutes, no matter what we do, nobody on our team did enough,” Tucker said afterwards. Golden State specifically won’t let role players do said roles comfortably. They aren’t leaving them open except in dire help situations, and they are inviting them to attempt contested shots. Give Tucker and Ariza open corner threes, and they can bury them. But ask them to make plays, to give Harden one 24-second breather before he resumes his mismatch sauté again, and the Warriors are gleeful. Any shot that isn’t a three or an open layup and doesn’t come from Harden or Paul is a win.
This is a cheap way of looking at the complicated process of winning basketball games, but it illustrates the problem with matching up against the unfair Warriors. They have unlimited talent stemming from the top, and they have wizened veterans complementing them. They even got three triples from Nick Young off the bench, which felt unfair. But “unfair” is the Bay Area’s word of the decade ever since July 2016.
Houston’s chance to surge back into the series doesn’t start with their best players, but in finding an overall team effort that exceeds their Game 1 output. Harden and Paul can be even better, but better in terms of helping their teammates thrive, not increasing their own output. The Rockets need to manufacture a few more productive offensive possessions that don’t involve their two stars, whether that comes in transition or with more off-ball movement. Those two must be smarter doing that, too. D’Antoni joked that he would ask Harden to score 55 points next game, but both know that his 41 points must be accompanied by more help.
“The same way we’ve been doing it all year,” Harden said when asked how to get his teammates going. “Making sure those guys have confidence going into every single game. We’re all in this together, so it doesn’t matter who has a bad game or who is missing shots. We’re in this, whether it’s myself, Chris, or anybody, keep going, keep shooting your shot and keep being aggressive. We got this far doing that and having that mindset.”
But still, nothing can change the fact that Golden State have more talented players filling those same roles. Talent doesn’t always beat execution, but in WarriorsLand, it almost always has. Houston’s only chance in this series is if it doesn’t. Houston is the a rare team that can match the Warriors’ top performers. But you still have to address the entire roster, and that’s where their problems begin.