This wasn’t the Western Conference finals anyone expected.
The last two games of this series pitting the two most prolific offenses in the NBA have been decided by, uh, defense. That’s right. The winning team hasn’t even eclipsed 100 points.
Houston has the probable MVP but was making do with a strong supporting cast. James Harden suddenly can’t hit a three to save his life or prolong the Rockets’ lives. But Eric Gordon, the sixth man off the bench and Sixth Man of the Year, sure can. He and reserve Gerald Green each sank three treys, which were three more than Harden did in an abysmal 0-for-11 shooting night behind the line.
Both teams have already lost a game on their home floor, unlike the Eastern finals that feature road weaklings and home cakewalks, and the Warriors have lost three of the last four after winning Game 1.
Houston is now without one superstar, and Golden State is without a super player.
Finally, the coach who professed to have the most confidence approaching Game 6 on Saturday is the one who lost Games 4 and 5 and sits on the brink of elimination. But there was Golden State’s Steve Kerr saying of his club, “They’re angry, and they should be. I feel great about where we are. That may sound crazy, but I feel it.”
Yes, it does sound crazy, especially since the defending champion Warriors looked uncharacteristically rattled and clueless as it choked down the stretch for the second straight game. Heck, they couldn’t even get a shot off on the last possession when Draymond Green fumbled away a pass from Steph Curry.
Kevin Durant, who had 29 points Thursday, made for a nice decoy then and the entire fourth quarter, and Green has hit just two threes in 11 tries in this series so he has the ball in his hands at desperation time? Not Kerr’s finest moment.
No, hardly anything makes sense in this gritty, physical series that may well come down to a war of attrition, and it may be decided by the last man standing.
That is, if anyone’s standing after a series that Houston now leads 3-2 after taking a gritty 98-94 win on Thursday night.
Bodies constantly littered the floor after fouls and hustle plays at the rambunctious Toyota Center, including a very important one on the Rockets roster because Chris Paul will be sitting instead of standing for Game 6.
The 12-year veteran hit big shot after big shot but didn’t finish the game on the floor, hobbled by a balky right hamstring and now ruled out for Saturday’s game in Oakland. So Houston will be without a future Hall of Famer and perhaps struck by the feeling that it won the battle but lost this NBA war because Paul missed 20 games this season with injuries including a hamstring strain. Those don’t go away overnight.
Not that Mike D’Antoni seems worried.
“He’s a tough guy,” the Rockets coach said of Paul Thursday night. “But we have enough guys, and it’s time for somebody else to step up. If CP’s out, he’ll (Gordon) be our playmaker, and he can do that and do it well.”
D’Antoni’s exactly right because he and general manager Daryl Morey have shaped this into a complete team, its skimpy seven-man rotation notwithstanding. How else would one explain Houston winning despite Paul and Harden making just 11 of 40 shots? Gordon, who has hit big threes to secure the Rockets’ last two wins, finished with 24 points in Game 5, 20 more points than the Warriors’ entire bench. But Gordon’s not Chris Paul.
Of course, the Warriors aren’t at full strength either. Versatile glue man Andre Iguodala has sat out the last two games with a leg contusion and might not be available.
And defense is where this series is being decided despite two high-octane offenses.
“I think it’s been high level,” said Curry, who hit just two of eight long-distance shots. “Nothing’s easy out there on either side. Neither team getting to 100 two straight games. Don’t know what the odds are on that. Defense is high right now.”
So high that Harden is having to find creative ways to score. He’s missed his last 18 attempts from three-point land but continues to dribble-penetrate, get fouled and sink free throws as he did Thursday when he sank all nine attempts. He’s not hot.
“I’m not?” Harden deadpanned when a reporter mentioned his shooting woes. “I’m just missing shots, but we’re winning. Defensively, if we lock in like we’ve been doing, we’ve got a chance.”
D’Antoni’s more than comfortable with Harden’s attempts. In fact, he kidded with Gerald Green to tell him “when he gets a 100 and he hasn’t made one, we might talk about it. He’s got a ways to go.”
That’s the mentality of these newly transformed Rockets, who thrive on improved defense from the Pauls, Gordons and P.J. Tuckers as much as they do threes. D’Antoni was fine with the 43 three-pointers his team jacked up, but wouldn’t object if they hit more than 13.
“We’re gonna live and die with the shots they’re gonna take,” Draymond Green said. “I have a lot of confidence in us living and not dying.”
But the Rockets are equally confident. Heck, Paul even gave Curry a dose of his own medicine, mockingly shaking his shoulders after an off-balance three.
“It was well deserved,” Curry laughed off. “If you can shimmy on somebody else, you’ve got to be all right getting shimmied on. So I’ll keep shimmying, and maybe he will, too.”
And Houston now has two cracks at shimmying on into the NBA Finals, probably without its top shimmier.