For the first time in the NBA’s history with the current best-of-seven format, two teams are up 3-0 in their respective conference finals series. The Rockets will take the floor tonight looking to avoid a sweep at the hands of the Warriors. No team has ever come back come back from a deficit of this magnitude, so it seems like a foregone conclusion that the Dubs will soon dole a coup de grace.
After an MVP caliber season, James Harden was looking to continue his ascension to elite level in pursuit of the second trip to the finals in his career. Hanging over his head was the disappearance of his game back in the 2012 Finals against the Heat, but in this year’s playoffs, Harden was looking to shake those demons and he, without question, needed his running mate Dwight Howard to help him defy all the odds that stood before them.
Through three games against the Warriors, Howard has averaged a mediocre 13.3 points per game. TNT analyst Shaquille O’Neal always alludes to the notion that big men of this caliber need to be dominant in order for their teams to win a series, especially against superior teams. Shaq knows a little something about that, as he was a driving force on those Lakers and Heat teams that won championships.
Howard just hasn’t asserted himself to the degree that you would hope for if you were a fan of the Rockets. In the past, we’ve seen him receive scrutiny for his inability to shoulder loads and deliver his team to the promiseland. He has averaged 14.0 rebounds during the playoffs, which leads the NBA and 14.7 against the Warriors. After being injured in Game 1, he responded with a magnificent 19-point, 17-rebound performance in Game 2. These aren’t numbers you want to summarily dismiss or ignore, but he’s been needed to produce much more offensively and hasn’t been able to do so, and much of this might be attributed to some ailing knees.
His -5.3 plus-minus in this series is alarming because it suggests that the Rockets are in fact a better team when he isn’t on the floor at face value. But this actually might be skewed to some degree, especially after the Warriors’ 115-80 route in Game 3. And the numbers do indeed detail that the Rockets are much better when Howard is on the court.
The Rockets have a defensive rating of 107.0 when Howard is on the floor, which is 7.6 points lower than when he’s on the bench. And the 13.5 net rating disparity of him being on the floor opposed to him being on the bench is the second largest on the team to James Harden’s. As noted, he has risen above the knee issues in this series and made an impact.
Golden State has resorted to the small-ball play that has brought them success this season. Draymond Green has certainly excelled at the center position, and the Dubs have been better offensively and defensively in many categories with him playing the five. His versatility has given most teams, especially with prototypical bigs, some difficulties.
There’s still no excuse for Howard to continuously fall short of imposing his will. We’ve witnessed countless possessions of him failing to capitalize on the size advantages that result from Steve Kerr electing to downsize and cross matchups that come from getting back on defense in transition. Furthermore, there’s a video circulating the social media waves that show six-foot-three Steph Curry boxing out Howard and corralling an offensive board that led to him getting fouled. That is inexcusable. It also doesn’t make sense that the erratic Josh Smith attempted four more field goals than Howard in Game 3’s loss.
At the beginning of this series, I picked the Warriors to win in six games because they have transcendent talent in their MVP Steph Curry and a team rife with players who are buying into a system that netted them a franchise record 67 wins, a division title and the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. They’re now just one win away from the franchise’s first trip to the Finals since 1975 when they won it all.
But the Rockets overcame adversity this season and experienced a level of success that was commendable and it had the general public thinking that we were set for a classic showdown. So far, it has amounted to the Warriors just being significantly better than the Rockets, as detailed by the 3-0 series lead.
After Game 3, Howard told reporters that he felt like the fans in the arena quit on the team. He’s been accused of quitting on his teams in the past. Magic fans felt this was the case prior to him being traded to Los Angeles. And the Lakers shared these same sentiments when he was ejected in his final game in a Lakers uniform back in Game 4 of the first-round against the Spurs back in 2013. You’re hoping that this isn’t the case when the Rockets and Warriors tip off for Monday night’s Game 4, but the feeling around the team is that Howard has actually been encouraging and upbeat.
An argument can be made that injuries have slowed Howard down. He suffered a right knee injury that sidelined him for half the year during the regular season and then sprained his left knee in Game 1 of this series. Fortunately for the team, he didn’t have to miss any time.
Harden came into Game 3 averaging 33 points on 59 percent shooting from the field. He struggled immensely in their previous game, and as a result, his team was blown off their floor. He shot just 3-for-16 and had a plus-minus of -31. As far as I’m concerned, this is completely unacceptable for the best player on the team, especially when you’re in danger of falling into 3-0 hole.
After securing the No. 2 seed in the West and reaching the Western Conference Finals, the Rockets have been woefully disappointing. Although Howard has played well to some degree, there is no doubt that he’ll receive some criticism if they lose this series. The Rockets have won their last three games while being on the brink of elimination. They all came against the Clippers in the last round when they trailed 3-1. They’re up against a different beast this time around and are devoid homecourt in this series.
In Game 3, the Rockets were out-rebounded 60-39 with eight more boards on the offensive glass. Allowing a high-octane offense like the Warriors to get more offensive possession is a recipe for disaster. They also struggled defensively, allowing the Dubs to shoot 45 percent from the field.
In the end, the media will most likely crucify Howard and might even do so to themselves for even giving the Rockets a chance in this series. You can look at the six missed free-throws Dwight had in the previous game as a reason to cast aspersion on him. You can also look at the fact that he does need to be a tad bit more aggressive on the offensive end for his team to have a shot.
But you can’t gloss over the team’s defensive struggles and lack of effort they’ve displayed in this series.
Jason Terry and Trevor Ariza, two integral parts of the Rockets’ attack, shot a combined 5-of-15 in Game 3. The team only totaled 15 assists in the game, down from the 22.3 they’ve averaged throughout the postseason. It’s been a total team effort, and so far, that effort just hasn’t been good enough.
It’s hard to judge whether they’ve been a fluke, or if the Warriors are just that good. Either way, they’ve let their fans down and all are to blame for their demise.