Considering everything that had taken place earlier in the series, it would’ve been hard to imagine the Rockets having a better start than the one they had in Monday’s Game 7.
About midway through the second quarter, Houston had held Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green to 1-of-7, 2-of-6 and 2-of-6 shooting from the field, respectively. Klay Thompson opened the game hot — and was 4-of-5 from the field — but his effectiveness was dulled to some extent because he’d uncharacteristically landed three fouls in the first four minutes of action, forcing Steve Kerr to yank him early. Meanwhile, Houston found a comfort zone from deep, hitting 6 of 13 threes. And even when the Rockets misfired, they often outworked Golden State, strong-arming offensive boards on nine of their 19 missed shots.
Houston had a 42-30 lead with 6:13 to go in the half as likely league MVP James Harden ducked behind a Clint Capela screen for a 3-point try over the outstretched arm of Green. The shot, a miss, didn’t seem significant in that moment. But what would follow — 26 more missed threes in a row, the longest stretch of missed triples in NBA postseason history — turned out to be one of the biggest outliers in recent memory, one that will haunt the title-worthy Rockets now that they’ve been taken out by a Warriors team that they had right where they wanted.
So how unbelievable was it that Houston missed that many threes — many of which were wide open — in a row? To get a better sense, FiveThirtyEight leaned on Quantified Shot Probability (qSP) data — used to weigh the likelihood of a shot going in depending on who’s taking it, how close the nearest defender is to the shot, and how quickly that player is closing out — from Second Spectrum and NBA Advanced Stats, which use high-level cameras to track on-court movement.
By using that metric — and looking at the probability of each individual shot’s chance of going down, from Harden’s 33 percent hoist that began the drought to his 31.6 percent chance on the last shot of the dry spell — we can conclude that the Rockets embarked on an approximately 1-in-72,000 cold streak from deep at the worst possible time, with a trip to the Finals on the line.
As much of this was happening during the third period, a span in which Houston went 0-of-14 from deep, the Warriors were doing what they do best: staging a massive comeback after halftime. Specifically, Curry caught fire after the break for the second straight game (albeit in controversial, illegal-screen fashion at times), hitting 4-of-5 from 3-point range in the third. He and Durant combined for 24 in the period, a span in which the duo outscored the entire Rockets team by nine.
Houston had overcome Golden State’s Mario Star-like third period earlier in the series during Game 4. But without any juice from the Rockets’ trademark long-distance shooting, the Warriors pulled ahead and stayed there for good, earning a fourth consecutive Finals trip.
But given that many saw Houston as the club with the best chance to take down Golden State (the oddsmakers have the Warriors as enormous favorites over the Cavs), that confounding stretch of missed threes — which lasted half the game, from the 6:13 mark of the second quarter all the way until the 6:28 mark of the fourth — will be talked about for a long time.
What could possibly cause a team to go that cold? Some would point to tired legs, particularly since coach Mike D’Antoni had been using a short rotation — somewhat out of necessity, since future Hall of Famer Chris Paul was out. But the dry spell was also related to matchups. Case in point: D’Antoni avoided using the slow-footed Ryan Anderson for the vast majority of the series. But when he dusted him off and played him Monday, Curry nearly brought Anderson to his knees on D, and Houston got outscored by 12 points in Anderson’s 8 minutes on the court — keep in mind, the final margin in the game was nine.
Many probably asked a totally logical question in all this: Why wouldn’t the Rockets just temporarily abandon their reliance on the 3-ball since they couldn’t make anything from outside? Yes, this team took triples at a historic rate — the first ever to attempt more three-pointers than twos — but putting the ball on the floor to get looks from closer in seemed sensible.
Doing that would have a been a little bit easier said than done for two reasons. First, without Paul, the Rockets were missing their most reliable midrange player, someone who at times had his way against the Jazz in the second-round series because of his ability to neutralize a club that was generally happy surrender that sort of lower-percentage look.
Beyond that, Harden and the Rockets might not have been confident that they’d earn trips to the line by merely being more aggressive. In Game 6, for instance, Harden drove to the cup a game-high 21 times, according to NBA Advanced Stats. Yet he didn’t draw a single free-throw attempt from those drives. (Green told reporters after the game that they expected Harden to wear down late in the contest from having to create so much offense in Paul’s absence. Whether that expectation was valid or not, Harden shot 6-of-25, or 24 percent, from 3-point range over the last two games of the series.)
In an era where so many thought this Warriors’ team was untouchable, Houston managed to push Golden State to the brink. With a healthy Paul, maybe they would have won and taken down a team that’s still seeking to go down as the greatest to ever play the sport.
Houston’s Gerald Green was asked to describe his feelings after the tough loss. “Heartbroken,” he told reporters. Asked to expand beyond that single word, he responded, “Heart. Broken.”
The cost of coming that close and falling short. The cost of arguably the wildest drought we’ve ever seen.
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CORRECTION (May 29, 2018, 1:20 p.m.): A previous version of this story mistakenly said Curry and Durant outscored the Rockets by 10 points in the third quarter. The duo outscored Houston by nine.