James Harden missed a total of 59 three pointers in the Conference Finals. He went 2-for-13 in Game 7 against the Warriors. The Rockets as a team went 7-44 from the three in Game 7. That is 111 points worth of shots missed. They missed 27 consecutive threes. Trevor Ariza went 0-12 from the field, 0-9 from the three. Eric Gordon went 2-12 from the three. Gerald Green went 1-4 from the same spot. They lost by just nine points.
Every time the camera showed Chris Paul throughout the debacle of the second half, I couldn’t help but wonder how much of a relief it would have been for the Rockets to have someone making midrange jumpers and floaters. Just to keep them ahead or closer to the Warriors before the final minutes.
It wasn’t that the shots that they took were bad, some of them were open; and this way of playing is what made the Rockets the best regular-season team in the NBA. It was a season where they made more threes than anyone else in the league.
Here's what 27 consecutive missed threes looks like.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 29, 2018
It's the most by one team in a playoff game in NBA History. pic.twitter.com/RI85mzw5pe
The Rockets were playing their natural game, adhering to the philosophy of taking a three or a layup. It’s the style that got them to a Game 7 against the defending champions and gave them an opportunity to legitimately overcome the Warriors. They were up going into the half and had big leads in this game and in Game 6. The most frustrating thing from this loss has to be that they failed doing exactly what made them great in the first place, except that on the day that they needed them most, their shots wouldn’t go in. They were also missing a pivotal force.
Houston isolates a lot, shoots a lot of threes or goes to the rim, which is especially tiring for Harden, but it works when he has another great and intelligent point guard who can carry the team when everyone else stalls. It showed in that Game 5 when Paul hit an array of long and mid-range shots to push the Rockets forward when Harden and the supporting cast were tiring out. He’s also a walking monument of talent, so even when he’s tired, he’s still capable of hitting highly contested threes or making a layup over a number of defenders which were often critical buckets for his team.
Paul is the one who stabilizes and pushes them forward when things threaten to go awry. They can miss all of those shots and still win if he’s there being himself. Without Paul, all the Warriors had to do was wait until the game reached the point where the Rockets needed him, when Harden and the team tired out from fighting against a more talented team, and then take advantage of that absence to crush the Rockets. The plan worked to perfection.
Without Paul, the Warriors knew they could win by simply outlasting their opponents. After Game 7, Kevin Durant told ESPNRadio that the Warriors played with the knowledge that the Rockets would tire out and go cold:
Kevin Durant on @ESPNRadio "We knew at some point they’d tire out. James dribbled so much each possession, I know at some point he’ll wear down and we were going at him on the defensive side of the ball as well"— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) May 29, 2018
In a series that saw both teams beaten down to their pure talent value, Paul’s loss meant that the Rockets leaned harder into their style of three or layup to compensate for the variety and control that he provided. The idea would work for the first half of the game, but when they tired in the second, it became especially sad to watch them hoist threes with tired legs.
This series effectively ended when Paul limped off injured at the end of Game 5. The matchup saw each team both turn into the worst versions of themselves, with Houston pumping out and missing threes at such a ridiculous rate and Golden State sometimes altogether abandoning their style of passing and off-the-ball movement for the more archaic Kevin Durant post-up offense.
Durant and Paul shared a similar importance for their respective teams as complements and radical departures when necessary. Durant bailed out the Warriors when everyone else floundered, which could have the negative effect of reducing their offense into hoping that he does exactly that. Paul was the antidote to the Rockets poisoning themselves with their style.
Harden had no one to take the pressure off of him and the other players could only do what they had the ability and had been instructed to do. The justifiably short rotation — Ryan Anderson getting crossed up terrible is reason enough — put even more stress on the players who were on the court. They were tired, they couldn’t rest, the shots stopped falling and their confidence went down.
Paul’s absence and influence was evident in the fact that the Rockets couldn’t do much else at that point but go deeper into a plan that was failing. He’s less of a complement to an established system and more of the reason why that system can operate at its best.
After the game, Steve Kerr summarized that simple idea that won the Warriors their toughest series in the Durant era:
In Games 6 and 7, the Warriors won by keeping close to the Rockets in the first half, knowing that they would inevitably tire. Knowing that without Paul, the Rockets were at a talent deficit. There was no one to bail them out, they could only become a more extreme version of themselves as the situation grew more critical.
The Warriors tired as well, but they just more options, more variety in their attack, that the pure science of that eventually won out. It didn’t need to be ingenious or pretty. They just needed to wait things out.
The fact that the Rockets only lost by nine points after missing so many threes is frustrating since they still had a legitimate chance at victory, even with how absurd their bad luck was. It’s also proof of why Paul is so important to this team. Because as much as the game was down to bad luck, it also showed that the Rockets were missing the stabilizing factor that mitigates their extreme style of play and adds a much needed variety to their offense.