The Houston Rockets are one win from the NBA Finals, which means the Golden State Warriors are on the brink of their first elimination in the Kevin Durant era and just their second in the past four seasons.
Let that sink in for a moment. Golden State, who have looked downright unbeatable since the moment they added Durant in the summer of 2016, have their backs against the wall and need to win the next two games of the Western Conference Finals – including one on the road – to keep their run going.
This iteration of the Warriors hasn’t come close to facing a situation like this before. They’ve lost three times in this series to the Rockets after suffering three defeats in total in their past six playoff series.
Houston have managed to take Golden State out of their comfort zone, but much of what has ailed the defending champions has been self-inflicted.
Here are takeaways from Game 5 and what they mean as the series shifts back to the Bay, where the Warriors will be fighting for their lives.
Golden State’s offence out of sorts
There’s a lot to parse on the side of the ball featuring Golden State’s offence and Houston’s defence.
It would be easy to equate the Warriors’ struggles in scoring and scoring efficiently in this series to their own mistakes and insistence on playing isolation ball with Durant. That has certainly played a major factor, with Golden State too content to dump the ball to Durant in the mid-post and let him attack one-on-one.
It would be the best method of attack for practically every other team in the league, but not for a Warriors juggernaut which has three of the greatest shooters in history and an abundance of options stemming from fluid ball movement. It’s not a coincidence Golden State’s best performance in this series came in the game Stephen Curry went off for 35 points as the team regained its identity.
The Warriors are not moving the ball as much in the Conference Finals.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 25, 2018
They are averaging 78 fewer passes per game than last round and 59 fewer than the regular season per @SecondSpectrum. pic.twitter.com/NbSSMx3KhI
But this isn’t a one-way street – the Rockets have had a say in Golden State’s issues. The ball pressure in Game 5 was often suffocating and left the Warriors reeling as the shot clock was winding down.
The importance of Andre Iguodala’s absence was on full display as Golden State immensely missed his playmaking and table-setting. As great as Iguodala is though, you can’t be that reliant on a role player when you have two MVPs and two All-Stars on the roster. Still, if Iguodala recovers from his knee injury enough to return for Game 6, it could swing the series back in Golden State’s favour.
Warriors waste Houston’s ice-cold shooting
Golden State should be concerned they couldn’t win on a night the Rockets shot a putrid 37.2 per cent from the field and just 13-of-43 from long range.
That 13-of-43 mark was also what Houston shot on uncontested field goals as they missed open look after open look to keep the Warriors in the game.
It would be an understatement to say James Harden is cold as ice right now. He went 5-of-21 in Game 5 and 0-of-11 from 3, meaning he’s now missed 20 straight triples – the longest streak of his career.
Many of those have been of the step-back variety, but while they might not be ideal shots, Harden’s MVP campaign was largely built on nailing those daggers.
Harden can’t possibly shoot any worse going forward, so it’s possible the Warriors missed their opening to make him and the Rockets pay.
Time for some humility
The Warriors have never lacked for confidence. If anything, it’s bordered on – if not totally crossed into – arrogance.
And you can’t blame them. They were nearly unbeatable before Durant jumped on board and have been infallible since, often exuding a laissez-faire attitude in the regular season when the stakes are minimal.
Even now, with the Warriors on the brink of elimination, they sound as confident as ever.
“I feel great about where we are right now,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said.
Their self-belief is both admirable and essential, but the time has also come to stop messing around and take things seriously.
It never seems like the Warriors have much respect for their opponents and that’s especially been the vibe against Houston, who should have commanded their attention after being the best team in the league this season.
The Rockets should definitely have their attention now. Golden State’s margin for error and casualness is long gone.
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