Down 1 with the clock running down and the ball in the hands of your best player, you might be tempted to think you were in good shape. That was where the Rockets were on the road Thursday night after clawing and scratching their way back multiple times. One terrific defensive possession, and James Harden was off to the races with the basketball and 7 seconds ticking off the clock. The Warriors double-teamed him, he passed off to Dwight Howard, who gave the ball back immediately, but Harden fumbled it as Klay Thompson and Steph Curry sandwiched him, and that was ball game.
It's a shame that final play will gain so much scrutiny between now and Saturday night when the series returns to Houston with the Rockets down 2-0 in these Western Conference Finals. Because that was just one small part of the story and it was not indicative of the performances of Harden and Howard. Both were brilliant. And, thus far in this series, the Rockets have not struggled because of their stars.
Howard, a game-time decision due to a sprained right knee that had people around the league with no sense calling him soft, had 19 points on 8-11 shooting with 17 rebounds in 40 minutes of work. That is not soft. And Harden, who has taken some heat for not dominating games in the playoffs, was nothing short of spectacular, dueling it out against MVP Curry and winning at essentially everything except the final score. He finished with 38 points on 13-21, 10 rebounds and 9 assists.
This was NOT on them. This team is down 0-2 because their supporting cast, with few exceptions, has struggled badly in Oakland.
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SHOW ME HOW
Other than Harden and Howard, the rest of the team is 44-111 from the field for 39 percent and 12-39 from the three point line for 30 percent. Those numbers include Trevor Ariza's 7-10 field goals and 4-5 threes in game one and Terrence Jones's 6-10 field goals in game two. Remove those two performances, and those players combined for 34 percent from the field and 22 percent beyond the arc.
In case you aren't a big basketball fan, that is hideous. Harden and Howard are carrying the Rockets through this series and they have lost both games by a combined 5 points. So, anyone who would pile on these two stars, particularly Harden over that final play, needs to recognize they are doing everything they possibly can to win.
It is also worth noting that they are not on the floor playing against air. The Golden State Warriors are an extremely good basketball team and it is clear why Curry was the MVP, although we are also seeing why Harden was such a close second in voting. Watching them battle it out has been as scintillating as seeing the Rockets lose has been disheartening.
With the series shifting back to the Toyota Center, the Rockets should be confident they can respond on their home court. But they will need much better performances from players whose names don't start with H.