Just as in the last game, the Warriors came out in the third quarter firing on all cylinders. The Rockets, perhaps road weary on the back-to-back, were a step slower than in the first half. The Warriors went on a 15-4 run to turn a 7 point half-time deficit into a 4 point lead, and looked like they were on their way.
Then, towards the end of the third quarter, Rick Adelman went small. Out came Scola and Hayes. In came Landry and Lowry. The Rockets went 6-8″ across the front line, and had two 6-0″ point guards in the backcourt.
At the start of the fourth quarter, Don Nelson matched up against Adelman. He went smaller. He played 6-6″ Corey Maggette at center, 6-5″ Anthony Morrow at power forward, and three point guards.
And that’s how the fourth quarter unfolded. The superior size and defense of the Rockets against the superior quickness and shooting of the Warriors. Unfortunately for the Warriors, their leader and captain, Monta Ellis simply could not get untracked in this game. And his teammates seemed to follow his lead in the fourth quarter. No one could hit a shot, open or not. It began with the Warriors holding a 10 point lead at the 9 minute mark of the four quarter. Monta and Maggette missed layups, Monta, Morrow, Maggette and Watson missed all of their open jumpers, and the Rockets went on a 12-o run to seize the lead.
The closing minutes were fairly ugly. Maggette got pulled for ineffectiveness, and yet another angry retaliation foul that handed the Rockets free throws and possibly the game. Monta turned the ball over in the clutch. CJ Watson made a bad foul on Houston’s last second jump shot. And the Warriors botched their desperation inbounds play at the end of the game.
A tough loss in Nelson’s return to the chief seat. I’m guessing he will get roundly booed in the press for his small-ball lineup in the fourth quarter of this game, and the fourth quarter collapse. I’m not really sure what else he could have done, though. He had already played Chris Hunter and Vlad Rad every minute of the third quarter. And returning Hunter to the game may have simply resulted in Adelman reinserting Scola. Not a plus for the Warriors, obviously. If I were to second-guess anything, it would be leaving the red-hot Vlad Rad on the bench until the end of the game.
But the bottom line in this loss is that the Warriors simply went cold at the wrong time. With five shooters on the floor at all times in the fourth quarter, they shot 30%. Ballgame.
Don Nelson v. Rick Adelman: Rick Adelman is a great coach, and one of the toughest all-time for Nellie to match up against. Like Popovich and Karl, Adelman knows how to think the game, and loves to play chess with Nellie. He’s not one of the stubborn herd of coaches who insist that their teams blindly play set lineups and a set style no matter what they are faced with. He’s lost his share of games to Nellie, but rarely because he let himself get outmaneuvered. If he needs to make an adjustment, he will find it, and his well-prepared team will execute it.
(Coaches not capable of making an adjustment: Phil Jackson, Avery Johnson, Jeff Van Gundy, Mike Brown, Nate McMillan and a host too numerous to count. In the rare cases where Phil Jackson has needed to make an adjustment, he has preferred instead to simply call his owner and ask him to buy him another all-star. For the NEXT year’s finals.)
In this game, Adelman made the right adjustment, at the perfect time. He put what is arguably his best player, Luis Scola, on the bench, and went small. And in the fourth quarter, as Don Nelson is wont to say, “Their smalls were better than our smalls.” Chalk this win up in Adelman’s column.
Monta Ellis: Monta Ellis was not the star of this game, which is a big reason the Warriors lost. It may have been because he wasn’t feeling well (he might have the flu, which would be the perfect icing on the Warriors’ injury cake). It may have been that the Rockets’ defense is out of this world, and a nightmare matchup for him and the Warriors. But he was a step slow against the Rockets’ all night. His drive was almost completely shut down. He got it capped an incredible 7 times. And his outside shot was off. His 9-27 line contrasts poorly with the efficient 8-15 of Aaron Brooks.
He did manage 8 assists, but they were outweighed by his 9 TO’s trying to force his offense against the Rockets’ scrambling defense. He was particularly bad in the fourth quarter, managing to make only one shot, and dribbling off his foot for a costly turnover with :36 left in the game and the Warriors down 2.
On the plus side: First, there is no telling how much Monta was taken out of his game by two horrible offensive foul calls made against him, while passing, at the end of the first half. These calls not only cost the Warriors 4 points, but left Monta with 4 fouls going into the second half. Would those fouls have been called on Kobe Bryant, in Staples Center? I’m just asking. Second, Monta guarded Ariza most of the night, and did a heck of a job on him. Third, he hooked up with Anthony Morrow on three, count ‘em, three pointers. Nice to see.
Corey Maggette: Maggette played center in Nellie’s small ball lineup in the fourth quarter, matched up against the Rockets’ Carl Landry. Unfortunately, Maggette was badly outplayed by Landry on both ends of the court, and this as much as anything cost the Warriors the game. Landry used his power against Maggette on the offensive end effectively, going for 11 points in the quarter. On the other end, Maggette tried but simply could not get to the rim against Landry. Landry is a remarkable player. At 6-9″ 248, he has the quickness, length and strength to guard anyone from centers to off-guards. Note to Don Nelson: Carl Landry is a bad match-up for Corey Maggette.
Don Nelson unveiled a new wrinkle in the offense with Maggette at center tonight: the high pick and roll. The play worked to perfection in my eyes. Maggette was left wide open in the lane as the Rockets aggressively trapped Monta Ellis. Unfortunately, Monta only hooked up with him once, for a layup. On several other occasions, with Maggette waving his arms all alone in the paint, Monta picked up his dribble and swung the ball. The high pick and roll should become a staple of the Warriors offense, and Monta simply needs to get better at it.
Curry, by the way, ran the play with Maggette once, and completed a perfect over-the-head left-handed pass for the assist at the rim.
Vlad Rad: On this night Vlad left “enigmatic” at home, and was simply “tantalizing.” He showed all the skills that had coaches drooling over his potential early in his career. 20 pts, 4-7 on threes, 8 rbs., 6 assists, 3 steals. Even his defense was excellent. He knows how to step out against the pick and roll, and knows how to rotate. On Houston’s next to last possession, it was Vlad who rotated and forced Brooks to miss. Check it out.
Does Don Nelson now have the talented four that he covets? This will be a very interesting story going forward (not least of all because of what it will mean for the playing time of Anthony Randolph). Obviously, he’s not Dirk Nowitzki, but he does do a few things better than Dirk. He’s far quicker, and a far better help defender. He might run the court better. And he’s a far better ball-handler and passer. What makes the comparison laughable is something completely intangible. Dirk Nowitzki has the heart of a champion. Vlad Rad’s heart is… need I say it? An enigma.
Leaving Vlad Rad on the bench for most of the fourth quarter was one of Nellie’s most curious decisions in this game. In Nellie’s favor, Vlad had been on the court for all but 4 minutes of the game through 3 quarters, and was probably gassed.
Chocolate Rain: Anthony Morrow had another outstanding game. Fortunately for him, he drew an easy defensive assigment. Shane Battier is a great player, but he’s an afterthought in the Rockets’s offense. Morrow’s game continues to expand. He made several great assists on the fast break, and actually crossed Battier over and drove for a basket to tie the game in the final seconds. Unfortunately, he missed the wide open three he had with 5 minutes left that would have pushed the lead to 11, and taken the heart out of the Rockets. That was the Stephen Jackson dagger shot, right there. The Reggie Miller shot. If and when Morrow starts burying that shot, he will have arrived.
CJ Watson: CJ played another solid game. I believe he was perfect from the field in the first half. Unfortunately, like the rest of the team, he went ice cold in the fourth quarter. And his end of the game foul on Aaron Brooks was a big mistake.
Chris Hunter: The more I see of this kid, the more I like him. He not only does several things that the Warriors need, like defend the lane, block shots and rebound, but he also seems to have a tremendous basketball IQ. Loved the backdoor pass to CJ for a layup. Loved him knocking the ball out of Landry’s hands to gain another possession. Don Nelson seems to love him too: he says he told Keith Smart that the only thing he would have done differently in the games Smart coached was play Hunter more.
Will Hunter stick around after the return of Biedrins and Turiaf? Will Biedrins and Turiaf ever return? Will Anthony Randolph ever get 20 minutes in a game on this team again?
Questions for another day.