At times since Kevin Durant joined the Golden State Warriors, there’s been talk that the team is so loaded that it undermines the notion of competitive balance in the NBA. That argument took a serious blow Thursday. The Houston Rockets took Game 5 of the conference finals, 98-94, in a win that put this version of the Warriors on the brink of elimination for the first time.
Make no mistake: Much like in Game 4, when Houston punched back after taking a couple of good, old-fashioned Warrior haymakers, the Rockets earned every bit of this victory.
James Harden earned a spot in the record books with his inaccuracy from 3-point range, but he settled a little bit less as the game went on, and he got to the line eight times in the second half. Chris Paul, playing his heart out in his first opportunity on this conference finals stage, also began the game slowly, but he came alive in the third, hitting a number of heavily contested threes.
Center Clint Capela made a pair of highlight-reel stops at the rim — turning back a Durant layup and rejecting a Draymond Green dunk attempt. And in a tight game like this one, with so much on the line, it was hard not to notice all the 50-50 plays P.J. Tucker was involved in (similar to what Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday did in the Blazers series, without as much emphasis on his scoring). In addition to buying the Rockets a number of extra possessions with his hustle, Tucker thwarted several layups and held Durant to 1-of-5 shooting when he was the closest defender to him, per Second Spectrum and NBA Advanced Stats.
Yet for all the things the stout Rockets’ defense did to make it tough for Golden State, if the Warriors ultimately come up short, analysts and fans alike will only see what the team did wrong. And with that in mind, two clear problems continue to haunt Steve Kerr’s club.
First, Golden State’s outright carelessness with the basketball has been arguably the clearest separator between its wins and losses throughout the series. The team has averaged more than 16 turnovers in the three losses and had 18 — its highest total of the series — on Thursday. In their two victories, the Warriors averaged just 8.5 miscues.
If you’ve followed FiveThirtyEight’s analysis of Golden State this season, you know that the team’s occasional sloppiness has been perhaps our biggest concern surrounding the Warriors this year — in part because advanced metrics have suggested they may not be as well-equipped to overcome the turnovers as they have been in the past. Whatever margin for error they’d normally have on that front is at least partially diminished by playing an opponent that, at least on paper, is their equal. And without someone like Andre Iguodala — who’s missed the last two games due to injury but last year led the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio — you could argue the Warriors might even be at a disadvantage from a ball-control standpoint.
But the bigger problem, and one Golden State will have to get ironed out to win this series, is Durant’s penchant for going 1-on-1 so much, to the point where he and his teammates get tunnel vision. Durant specifically is averaging just under four assists per contest in the Warriors’ two victories this series, but is averaging only a single dime in Golden State’s three losses.
In an eye-opening sequence, TNT showed a miked-up sideline conversation between Durant and Kerr Thursday, in which Kerr told him to look for his open teammates earlier in possessions. Again, this isn’t a new problem for the Warriors, who have seen their normally poetic offense swing too far in Durant’s direction, particularly during stretches where Steph Curry is injured.
Golden State figures to benefit from a couple factors when the series resumes on Saturday night. Aside from playing in their home arena again for Game 6, the Warriors may see Houston without Paul, who injured his hamstring in the closing stages of Thursday’s game. This is a potentially devastating outcome for both the Rockets and for Paul, who has never made it this far in the postseason and has played an enormous role in giving his team the series lead.
But putting those things aside, Durant and the defending champions can get back to being themselves again by moving the ball better and not simply winging it around like a frisbee. And Saturday, when they’re on the brink of elimination, would be as good a time as any to start.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.