OAKLAND, Calif. — A squinting James Harden made his way back to the floor of Oracle Arena a few minutes into the second quarter, a look on his face like he was perpetually smelling a teammate’s day-old, unwashed, game-used socks. He soon re-entered the game, but never regained the MVP form we’ve come to expect.
Harden said afterward that he could “barely see” throughout the game, and it certainly looked like it on some plays, airballing his patented step-backs or throwing the ball to nobody in particular and watching it sail out of bounds. It’s a testament to his extraordinary talent that he finished with 29 points on 9-of-19 shooting.
Houston ended up losing a hard-fought Game 2, 115-109, and that’s exactly what’s supposed to happen when your superstar misses time or isn’t quite right. In Harden’s case, it was both.
The Rockets played valiantly in the 11 or so game minutes while Harden was out, closing the gap from nine points to five, but those were minutes when Harden could have helped tighten the game or even given them the lead. Harden leads the NBA in usage rate this postseason at 38.4 percent, so the offense completely changes when he misses significant portions of the game. His team battled and scrapped, but still trailed by nine at halftime. As expected, a stretch during which the Rockets could have made their move was nullified because of Harden’s absence.
“Well, it’s tough sledding,” D’Antoni said after the game of playing without Harden. “But at the same time I thought we did a good job of kind of righting the ship, give us a chance towards the end. That just means Chris [Paul] and Eric [Gordon] and those guys got to play a lot more minutes. But I thought we overcame that pretty well, as a matter of fact.”
The Rockets did handle it well, but it’s when you flip the camera to the other team’s roster that you get the true difference between these two teams.
Steph Curry exited the game shortly before Harden in the first quarter with a finger that looked like something out of a Wes Craven movie, missing a similar amount of time as Harden. A two-time MVP and arguably the most impactful basketball player of the past five years exits the game, and who do the Warriors turn to? Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala.
A far cry from Austin Rivers, Danuel House Jr. and Kenneth Faried.
Again, this isn’t to take anything away from the Rockets — they played their butts off and did absolutely everything they could to win the game, both with and without Harden. But, as Paul said after the game, “no moral victories over here … We lost.”
Sometimes we get so caught up in looking at the Warriors’ vulnerabilities, that we forget this is no ordinary championship squad. On even the best NBA dynasties, if you cut off the head of the snake (Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Bill Russell, LeBron James), most of the time you’d have at least a decent chance of beating them. Golden State’s snake has no head. It’s a hydra that keeps regenerating Hall of Famers every time you’ve slice one off.
Thompson’s nursing a bum ankle. Curry also hurt his ankle, and now the finger. DeMarcus Cousins is most likely gone for the postseason. That would do most teams in against an opponent as good as Houston. Not the Warriors. Not yet, at least.
This might seem obvious, but the depth of the Warriors’ top-tier talent was never more fully on display than when you saw the exact opposite storyline playing out concurrently with the other team. The Rockets had to fight and scratch and claw to stay afloat with Harden out of the game. With Curry out, Golden State had to settle for giving the ball to someone Steve Kerr recently called the “most skilled basketball player on Earth.”
Green eloquently summed up both the Warriors’ abundance of talent and the Rockets’ top-heaviness after his team’s Game 2 win. It’s what makes the uphill climb Houston faces to get out of an 0-2 hole that much more difficult. The Rockets are a great match for the Warriors — they’ve been built that way — but if you think they’re even on the same playing field in terms of talent, you’re fooling yourself.
“When we needed Kevin to get buckets, he did that. When we needed Steph to control the offense, he did that. Klay got going. Andre started off the game, I think he had maybe the first five or six points,” Green said. “It’s important because when it’s just one guy scoring or two guys, it allows the defense to kind of key on those guys. When it’s balanced like it was tonight, we’re really tough to stop when it’s going that way.”