The Houston Rockets took the Golden State Warriors to the brink in Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference Finals, falling just short of stealing a win on the road. It was mostly thanks to the play of James Harden, who ripped apart the Warriors' stingy defense -- he had 28 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists in Game 1 and 38 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in Game 2. It seemed Harden and the Rockets were going to head back to Houston and make this a competitive series.
Then Game 3 happened.
Harden went ice cold. After hitting over 50 percent of his shots in the first two games of the series, he couldn't find the bottom of the net in Game 3. He was 3-of-16 from the field as he scored 15 points, grabbed three rebounds and dished out four assists and the Warriors ran the Rockets out of the gym, winning 115-80 to take a 3-0 series lead.
The Warriors took command of the series not only because Stephen Curry doesn't miss shots, but in large part because they finally shut Harden down. While the Warriors' had one of the most potent offenses in the NBA this season, their defense was even better. They were the second-best offensive team, but the Warriors also boasted the top-rated defense, allowing just 98.2 points per 100 possessions. It showed on Saturday night.
After Klay Thompson attempted to corral Harden in the first two games of the series, Harrison Barnes got the assignment on Saturday night. Harden struggled to get clean looks against the bigger, stronger Barnes -- who despite 0-for-9 shooting performance in Game 3 has made a big impact for the Warriors in the playoffs. Barnes did his best to stay attached to Harden at the hip. And when Harden would get free, Barnes' length allowed him to get a hand up:
They rotated defender after defender onto him, each staying as close to his hip as possible and making sure to get a hand up even when he slipped open. After Barnes took his turn, Andre Iguodala locked down Harden. He, too, made sure to get a hand in Harden's face whenever he took his signature step-back jumper.
And there was always help, too. The Warriors weren't double-teaming Harden, but they were hedging their bets. First-team All-NBA Defensive honoree Draymond Green roamed the lane, ready to help on Harden at any moment. Thompson and Shaun Livingston matched up against Harden and were able to count on Green for help.
Harden was hesitant to attack the rim all night because of the constant help from the Warriors' front line. He still got to the free trow line -- he was 10-of-11 from the charity stripe -- but the entire defense moved with Harden. Every time he looked to the lane, Andrew Bogut or Green was there. Coach Steve Kerr had his defense ready for Harden's attacks.
On top of the great defense, Harden just had an off night. In the first two games of the series, Harden was 13-of-17 when he was open, according to NBA.com. In Game 3, he was just 2-of-10 in the same situation, when a defender was 4 feet or more away from him.
Now, the Rockets are on the brink of elimination. They have been counted out before, but coming back from down 3-0 against one of the best regular season teams in NBA history is as tough a task as you can ask.