Wow. That was as brutal a dismantling of a team’s playoff hopes and aspirations as I’ve ever witnessed. I thought the Rockets might be a contender before the season started, but no longer. Some things have changed, and some things I simply got wrong.
Let’s start with what’s changed: Dwight Howard’s knee. This is simply devastating to the Rockets’ entire scheme. This is a team built around defense: giving up Parsons for Ariza, the midseason acquisitions of Josh Smith and Brewer. In effect, sacrificing offense for defense.
It all falls apart if Dwight Howard can’t defend the middle. And he clearly no longer can. Just look at what happened last night. The Warriors ran a layup line. Zero blocks. There is no bounce left in Howard’s game.
There’s no joy left in his game either, and for this inveterate reader of tea leaves, that tells you a lot about how he’s feeling.
I think the Rockets are also badly missing two other injured key players: Terrence Jones and the rookie point guard Isaiah Canaan. Jones is a terrific two-way stretch four, whose defense and shot blocking in particular the Rockets could use. And I think it’s just a matter of time before Canaan gets called up from his D-League rehab. Jason Terry is done. Kaput.
As for what I got wrong: Well, Matt Steinmetz pointed out to me a few weeks ago that the Rockets are too dumb to contend, and he’s clearly right about that. The gap in IQ between the Rockets and the Warriors is absolutely enormous.
It starts at the top with Kevin McHale, who I think is one of the absolute worst game coaches in the NBA. Let me ask you something, if you had Trevor Ariza and James Harden, which one would you put on Klay Thompson, and which one would you hide on Harrison Barnes? The answer to that question is above McHale’s pay grade.
If McHale had the chops to make this cross-match, it might have even helped to get Harden going. It would have made it harder for the Warriors to get back into their own matchups. I don’t know if you noticed, but the few times last night that Harden found Barnes on him his eyes lit up and something good happened.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen McHale make an in-game adjustment to help his players. Last night, with Harden struggling badly, it was on McHale to get his best player going. I’m pretty sure a better coach would have forced Dwight Howard (at gunpoint, if necessary) to set high picks for Harden every possession that Bogut was on the floor. That would have gotten Harden going in a hurry.
Or if not that, how about a 2-3 pick and roll with Ariza, to get Harden matched up against Barnes?
Steve Kerr and Alvin Gentry have every trick in the book to spring Curry free. Under McHale, Harden is on his own.
Klay: Completely dominated whom many consider the best shooting guard in the game, on both ends of the floor. Probably the best overall performance Klay has had. Is he the best shooting guard in the NBA?
Hard to say, as comparing him to Harden is a bit like apples and oranges. Harden is the de facto point guard of the Rockets. The whole offense runs through him. But Klay is now accepted in the discussion, whereas just last year I was laughed out of the room for daring to suggest his greatness. And just last summer, Joe Lacob came within a shouting match with his legendary paid consultant of shipping him out of town.
I’ve said in the past that Klay guards Harden as well as anyone in the league. For some reason, the head fakes and crossovers and shake and bake moves that baffle everyone else in the league have absolutely no effect on Klay. I distinctly remember one sequence last night when Harden was iso’d up top against Klay, and he put on a dribbling display for five seconds, waiting for Klay to bite, and when Klay just stood there stolidly in front of him, never budging, finally just swung the ball in disgust. I’ve never seen anything like it. Klay pwned him.
At the same time Klay is earning recognition for his defense, his offensive game is exploding. He’s getting so comfortable in the lane now, slowing things down, pump-faking, using the glass, expanding his repetoire astronomically.
Klay is averaging 25 points a game over the last two weeks, on .526 shooting. His FFI for the season is up to 10. 7 over the last two weeks.
A top ten player in the league?
The MVP: The difference between Curry and Harden was on stark display last night. Harden is undoubtedly a great player despite last night’s performance, and Curry has also had games where he’s struggled badly. But last night when he was taken out of his game, Harden took his entire team down with him. With the Warriors’ defense keyed on him, he had an opportunity to get his teammates involved, to lead and inspire as a facilitator. It didn’t happen. There are whispers of selfishness surrounding James Harden, which last night’s performance did nothing to quell.
When Curry gets taken out of games, by contrast, he elevates the games of his teammates around him. We saw that in virtually every game of last year’s playoffs, against the Clippers’ all-out blitz.
The MVP? Let’s be serious. There is only one.
For goodness’ sake, let’s hear it, Oracle. Are we the best fans in the NBA, or not?
Draymond: The return of David Lee couldn’t have come at a better time for Green, as it looks to me like he’s been running on empty for the last couple of weeks. Four rebounds last night, and that’s what he’s averaging over the last four games, in this fashion: 1, 3, 9, 4. Serge Ibaka had a monster game against him, and Motiejunas was headed that way as well, when McHale inexplicably benched him for picking up his fourth foul. The Rockets fell apart for good at that moment.
Another possible sign of exhaustion: For the last month he’s shooting .415, and .531 from the line. (But that could also have something to do with that sprained thumb.)
Something tells me that Steve Kerr isn’t done fiddling with his Lacob’s Cube.
Bogut: I can’t imagine what he would have looked like if Kerr hadn’t “rested” him against OKC. Because if you ask me he looked rooted to the floor, barely one step above paralysis.
His matchup with Howard reminded me of the recent movie Grudge Match (which I didn’t see), about two old fart retired boxers stepping into the ring for one last bout. Back in the day when both were young and had all their body parts, Howard used to destroy Bogut with his quickness. In this game, he destroyed him by simply being ambulatory.
On the plus side, even limited as he was, Bogut was extremely useful in keeping the rest of the Rockets out of the paint, and in absorbing 20 minutes of Howard’s physical punishment.
The Showcase: Every game this season, his future offensive role on the Warriors, in the unlikely event he remains with the Warriors, becomes more cemented in stone. Spoon-fed wide open corner threes. (By the way, I just got a look at Barnes’ rather interesting shot chart: 60% on corner threes, only 32.6% on threes above the elbow.) Spoon-fed wide open dunks. Run the breaks. Run down long offensive rebounds from missed Warriors threes.
It’s the Bruce Bowen role, essentially. Minus the defense. And therein lies the rub for his NBA career. Could any other NBA team, not gifted with defensive monsters like Bogut and Green on the front line, afford to play Barnes at small forward? If you ask me, his NBA future lies as a stretch-four off the bench. A Ryan Anderson, Anthony Tolliver type. I think he might actually be pretty good at that.
We got a glimpse of what lies ahead for the Warriors in the playoffs in the OKC game. Scott Brooks stole a page from Gregg Popovich’s defensive playbook, and put Durant on Curry, moving Westbrook to Barnes (more like free safety, in actuality). And dared Barnes to beat them.
I daresay we’ll being seeing a lot of that in the playoffs this year, just as we saw it in the playoffs when Barnes was a rookie.
I think it’s also safe to say that if the Warriors meet OKC in the playoffs Kerr won’t single Barnes on Durant again. It’s clear that when Durant looks at Barnes, he sees a road cone.
So what will Kerr do? Back to the double and triple teams? The recent addition of Dion Waiters might make that more painful. As would the addition of Brook Lopez, which the Thunder are rumored to be exploring.
Or will the solution be more drastic?
David Lee: I literally can’t stand it when Kerr sticks Lee into the mid-post of The Triangle. The old Mark Jackson line keeps coming back to me: “David Lee is one of the very best pick and roll players in the NBA. Whenever you post him up, you are doing the defense a favor.”
We’re seeing this drama play out nightly now, as Kerr tries to fulfill his vision of making the Warriors a triangle team whenever Lee’s on the court. Fortunately for Lee and the Warriors, Kerr relented as last night’s game wore on, letting Lee play some pick and roll, and catch the ball on the move. And that’s when he exploded.
That’s his strength. That and beating opposing big men down court, as we also saw last night. This is the first game since he returned that I didn’t see Lee laboring to run.
The Warriors second unit has been transformed by Lee’s presence. Positive numbers for all. All except Shaun Livingston, of course.
Mokur: Bob Fitzgerald literally hates watching Speights play. Can’t wait to tell us that Bogut wouldn’t have given up that layup. Bites his tongue whenever Speights launches the outside shots that Mark Jackson discouraged. Simply cannot comprehend that he’s really, truly, one of the best shooters in the NBA.
And a very underrated rebounder and defender at his natural position, center.
Iggy: I’ll let some others do the talking, as relayed to us last night by the broadcasting crew:
Alvin Gentry: “Andre Iguodala is the smartest player I’ve ever been around.”
Steve Kerr: “Andre settles us down…. Always the guy who keeps our defense together, who leads us, who just understands the flow of the game, and what needs to be done.”
The Livingston Effect: Even his vaunted FG%, the management talking point that Bob Fitzgerald religiously force-feeds us, is declining. 0-5 last night, all on tough, contested shots. And that’s kind of the problem, isn’t it? Kerr likes to stress “the flow of the offense,” but Livingston can’t get any open shots in flow, can he? He’s not a catch and shoot player. He’s a break the offense for a post-up, back to the basket, dribble dribble, turnaround, launch a contested mid-range fadeaway player.
And by the way, I’ve been meaning to make this point for some time: It is ridiculous even to point to Livingston’s shooting percentage as a positive, for more than one reason. First of all, the last time I looked, literally a third of his shots were layup attempts. 87% of his shots were from 14 feet in. If you’re going to judge Livingston’s shooting percentage, you should judge it against NBA big men, not other guards. That’s what his shooting profile resembles. Livingston “shoots” a good percentage like Andris Biedrins “shot” a good percentage.
And if you break down his shooting percentage further, you will find that he shoots 60% from inside 4 feet, and 45% from outside 4 feet. So he’s earning the Warriors .9 ppp whenever he jacks up a jumper. In isolations, it’s worse than that. Before last night’s game, he was fourth worst in the NBA, at 32.4%.
But what is really the point is not Livingston’s shooting percentage at all. It’s the TEAM efficiency when he’s on the court that counts, right? Well, here it is (courtesy of NBAWowy.com):
- Livingston on: Warriors .945 ppp Opponents .960 ppp
- Livingston off: Warriors 1.21 Opponents 1.03
The Warriors offense falls off a cliff when Livingston enters the game, which is why Kerr was forced to start staggering his rotations to play one of Curry or Klay at all times. And the marginally improved defense that comes from having a 6-7″ wing at the point does not make up for it. Units including Livingston are strongly negative on the year.
Why do I keep bothering to bring up Livingston’s struggles, when the Warriors are 32-6? Because regular season record doesn’t get you a title, and I have a sneaking suspicion that the Warriors will need a backup point guard in the playoffs. A real backup point guard.
Who will it be?
James McAdoo: It appears that the Warriors signed the 6-9″ forward McAdoo to a 10-day contract today. This might seem like a quiet and innocuous move to some, but to me it’s a curious move on a roster already packed to the gills with big men. And an occasion for the reading of tea leaves.
Don’t expect to see McAdoo play except in garbage time. That’s not why he was signed. He was signed to fill out the practice squad, meaning some big men won’t be available to practice. Or, I suppose, to play in case of absolute emergency, meaning some big men can’t go.
Or — and I admit this is by far the least likely possibility, far-fetched even — perhaps the Warriors are exploring a deal involving one of their frontcourt players.