When the Houston Rockets take the floor on Saturday night in front of their raucous crowd at the Toyota Center for Game 3, they’ll do so knowing that they could be up 2-0 in this series. Or at least tied at 1-1. Contentious decisions by James Harden and head coach Kevin McHale garnered the attention of everyone watching in the Game 2 loss on Thursday.
After squandering a 16-point lead in the first game of this Western Conference Finals, they came into Game 2 looking to salvage one of the first two road games. They battled back constantly from multiple deficits in this game, playing inspiring basketball, spearheaded by the greatness of Harden. With the game hanging in the balance in the final seconds, the Warriors, nursing a one-point lead called a timeout to set up a play.
Harrison Barnes couldn’t get his shot to drop over the contest of Dwight Howard, and just like that, the Rockets had a chance to deliver Golden State just its fourth home loss of the entire season. Harden drove up the court guarded by Stephen Curry, and he soon drew a double team as Klay Thompson came over and provided help defense. He decided to give the ball up to Dwight Howard, who was standing alone at the three-point line, but precious seconds ticked off the game clock. Howard then kicked it back to Harden, but he couldn’t handle the basketball and the game was over.
In the end, Harden received the brunt of the criticism, but his 38 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists can’t be glossed over. He fueled their comeback and was the reason they had a chance to win this game after trailing by 17 points in the second quarter. They actually went into the half tied on the strength of a beautiful step-back jumper by Harden and a block on the ensuing possession.
McHale also received some criticism for electing not to call a timeout following the Barnes missed field goal. This was a gutsy call, but I thought it was the right move. Following the miss, the Warriors were scrambling to get back in transition, giving the Rockets the chance to push the ball. Had they called a timeout, this would have allowed head coach Steve Kerr to set up his defense – that same defense that led the NBA in defensive rating during the season. If Howard would have been involved in the final play, would the Warriors have resorted to Hack-a-Howard?
Well, that’s like intentionally walking Barry Bonds with the bases loaded, isn’t it? That would have been audacious on their part, and I don’t think it would have been done, but imagine if it did? Howard would step to the free throw line with three different outcomes at stake. Two missed free throws would lose the game, a split would tie it and send it to OT, and making both would tie the series at a game apiece in one of the most bizarre finishes in NBA postseason history. No way Kerr would have been bold enough to do this.
Harden’s decision to stop at the three-point line and not drive into the lane was costly because it allowed the Warriors to get back into the play. He has a propensity to penetrate and draw fouls. He led the entire league in free throw attempts per game during the regular season (10.2) and is second in the postseason (10.1). In the closing moments of games, many people usually voice their frustration as it pertains to officials deciding games, but at this moment, he had to play his percentages.
No one outside of Houston gave the Rockets much of a chance to win this series because it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that the Warriors would ultimately represent the West in the Finals. But the Rockets have been able to hang tight with the Dubs … it just hasn’t resulted in any W’s in the win column.
We’ll see how the Rockets respond at home in Game 3. For some reason, it doesn’t feel like this series is over just yet. We’ll find that out at the conclusion of Friday night’s game because we know that no NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit. And that’s certainly not happening against this Warriors team.