The Team That Almost Ended the Warriors’ Dynasty

April 30, 2019; Oakland, CA, USA; Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) dribbles the basketball against Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) during the first quarter in game two of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Rockets 115-109. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Warriors dominated the 2010s, reaching the NBA Finals in each of the past five years and winning three titles. Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson led the most dangerous “superteam” in recent history and set countless records, both individual and collective.

However, the Warriors’ historic run was almost cut short in the 2018 Western Conference Finals when they faced off against the Houston Rockets. Golden State eventually won the series in seven games, but they nearly squandered their opportunity for a third championship just one year after acquiring Durant, winning 72 games, and avenging their loss to the Cavaliers in the 2016 Finals.

The 2017-18 Rockets were constructed to beat the Warriors. General manager Daryl Morey had openly admitted as much to the press, heightening the pressure on his team to defeat their nemesis. Houston had fallen to the Warriors in 2015 and 2016, and Morey recognized Golden State as a bigger threat than any team in the increasingly inferior Eastern Conference.

Morey, unlike other franchise leaders, decided he would build a roster capable of beating the Warriors at their own game. Namely, one with players who would maximize the team’s possessions through pace and space and scoring only from behind the three-point line or at the rim. The hiring of Mike D’Antoni as head coach was Morey’s way of telling both the press and his team that he viewed defense as optional.

Such a strategy defied traditional basketball logic. It had the potential to radically increase Houston’s efficiency, but at the cost of defense and scoring in the mid-range and the post. In practice, it meant winning games not by scoring and getting stops, but simply by launching more shots than their opponent. Even if the Rockets made a lower percentage of their shots, they stood a better chance of winning if they attempted significantly more than the other team.

Basketball purists devoted to hard-nosed defense, mid-range shooting, and the offense flowing through post-scoring big men were quick to denounce Morey’s strategy. For them, it was easy to scoff at a blueprint rooted in analytics and created by a man who had never played basketball at a high level.

But there was one problem: it worked.

The 2017-18 Rockets would finish 65-17 that season, earning the top seed in the Western Conference. Their 112.4 points per game were the second-most in the league, and their opponents’ mark of 103.9 was good enough for sixth despite the team’s lack of emphasis on that side of the ball. They made a league-record 1,256 threes, and James Harden won MVP thanks to his 30.4 points, 8.8 assists, and 5.4 rebounds per game. Houston even finished 2-1 against the Warriors in the regular season.

Morey had finally created the perfect team for taking down Golden State. Harden and the newly-acquired Chris Paul formed a backcourt finally comparable to Curry and Thompson, with Harden’s unstoppable isolation moves and Paul’s combination of court vision and savvy scoring. Veteran three-and-D wings Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, and P.J. Tucker averaged almost 20 three-point attempts per game, and Clint Capela controlled the paint to the tune of 13.9 points and 10.8 rebounds per game.

The Warriors, to their credit, would go 58-24 and finish second in the West. Houston met them in the Conference Finals after taking down the Timberwolves and Jazz in five games each. Both teams finally had the opportunity to face off with fully healthy rosters in the series that effectively determined that year’s NBA champion.

The Rockets lost Game 1 at home by a score of 119-106 despite 41 points from Harden and 23 from Paul. A combined 83 from Durant, Thompson, and Curry led Golden State to the win. But Houston roared back with a 127-105 Game 2 victory, although Harden shot just nine-for-24. An all-around scoring effort led by 27 from Gordon and 22 from Tucker gave the Rockets the edge.

Then, in Game 3, the Warriors seemingly destroyed Morey’s dream of winning the series with a soul-crushing 126-85 victory. Six Golden State players finished in double digits, and Curry scored 35 to lead the way.

Yet, while staring down a potential 3-1 series deficit, the Rockets fought back in Game 4 and stole a 95-92 win, giving fans one of the most surprising upsets in recent NBA playoff history. Harden and Paul combined for 57, and the team appeared poised to finally take down Golden State as they headed back to Houston with the series tied 2-2.

Game 5 marked the closest Houston ever came to toppling the Warriors’ dynasty. The Rockets won 98-94 despite another poor shooting night from Harden, and they were just one game away from silencing their critics and shocking the basketball world.

But the win came at a price.

Chris Paul went down with a hamstring injury with under a minute left to play and would eventually sit out the rest of the series. Paul, known for suffering severe injuries in the postseason, snuffed out Houston’s last chance to make the Finals for the first time since 1995.

Predictably, Golden State went on to win Game 6 in a 115-86 blowout at home behind 35 from Thompson and 29 from Curry. Harden and Gordon combined for 55 in a valiant effort in Game 7, but the Warriors’ high-powered offense proved to be too much in a series-sealing 101-92 loss.

Though the 2017-18 Rockets failed in their quest to defeat the most dominant team of the decade, they popularized a new kind of NBA basketball. Many of today’s teams mirror them, trading mid-range jumpers for deep threes and prioritizing the fast break over post touches. Morey’s analytics-based strategy, which once seemed foreign and out of touch, has now entered the mainstream.

The Rockets may even get another chance to enact their revenge against the Warriors in the near future. They no longer have Paul or Capela, but Morey has upgraded the team with additions like Russell Westbrook, Robert Covington, and Jeff Green. The newest version of the Rockets looks more than capable of beating today’s Durant-less Warriors. If they are able to do so, they’ll finally redeem the franchise for its past failures and legitimize Morey and his system.

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