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How the Rockets have devolved the Warriors into sludge basketball

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Golden State doesn’t look itself. Here’s what Houston’s done, and how the Warriors can get back on track.

Golden State Warriors v Houston Rockets - Game Five Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Why have the Golden State Warriors, paragons of a basketball nirvana unlike the modern NBA has ever seen, devolved into the very isolation sludge ball they were built to transcend?

Asking this question leads to more fundamental questions about the basketball revolution the Warriors supposedly started. Have the Warriors lost themselves? Was their stylistic revolution not actually much of a revolution at all as much as it was simply a collection of unprecedented talent that’d win anyway? Did they cater too much to Kevin Durant’s preferred style and suffer from a modern twist on the Disease of More? Did they act too casually this season? Are all these questions going to look silly if they rally from a 3-2 deficit and beat Houston?

These questions are understandable. The Warriors have looked so unlike the Warriors we think we know that our minds automatically search for a larger explanation. Something significant must have happened to yield such a fundamental change.

That very well may be the case, but this story really isn’t as grand in scope as it seems. It’s really a much simpler story, one we’ve consumed many times watching the NBA over the years. It’s the story of an opponent that made critical adjustments, both in mindset and scheme, that have not been reckoned with thus far. To suggest otherwise is to seek the forest without even bothering to look at the trees.

So what are the Rockets actually doing, and how can the Warriors adjust? Let’s dig in.

What Houston is actually doing

They got tougher

The big talking point after Houston’s 41-point defeat in Game 3 was that the Rockets played soft. Mike D’Antoni, hardly the kind of coach who normally resorts to such machoism, said it himself. His stars echoed the sentiment.

It’s easy to dismiss such talk as cliche. Of course they played soft. They lost by 41 points! It’s also easy to tune out such talk because it doesn’t come with a clear action item. OK, so y’all played soft. You’re not telling me what the actual fix is, so isn’t this just tough talk with no point but to sound good to the media?

But in truth, Houston needed its schematic changes to be fueled by a guiding philosophy. There was a clear action item after all. It’s best exhibited by Trevor Ariza nearly pushing Durant over the mid-court line on a end-of-quarter possession in Game 5.

The Rockets got into the Warriors’ players at every opportunity. They pushed their defenders far out on the floor, which vaporized the comfortable space the Warriors use to trigger their usual offensive flow.

They did this even when the defensive matchup wasn’t favorable under normal circumstances. You’d rarely ask your center to check Durant 35 feet from the hoop, but that’s exactly what Clint Capela was doing whenever he switched onto KD.

This ball pressure didn’t just extend to when players had the ball. It also happened when they didn’t.

Houston’s defense famously switches nearly every screen, and you’d think that’d invite untenable mismatches the Warriors can pick apart. They did in Game 1, with Durant using his seven-foot frame to flick off smaller defenders like mosquitoes.

But adding the collective commitment to ball pressure threw off that nice rhythm. It forced Durant to start his drives from five feet further away from the hoop — in essence, an extra dribble. It also gave Houston’s thicc post defenders more time to use their strength to push Durant’s post-ups a couple feet further out before catching it.

This is what it means to play tougher. When every inch of positioning becomes a struggle, that has a cumulative effect on the next sequence. It’s like throwing sand into the gears of a machine.

The challenge against is to do it collectively and all the time. One squeaky wheel, and the whole apparatus collapses. The Rockets have done that in Games 4 and 5, and the end result is an offense known for its flow has none.

They’re playing 5 on 4

There’s a reason more teams don’t employ this strategy against the Warriors. Few teams in NBA history have been better at using opponents’ pressure against them, whether in the form of backdoor cuts, slipped screens, or good ol’ straight-line drives for layups. We’ve seen them fool aggressive defenses so many times that it’s ever-present in our daydreams (or nightmares, depending on your perspective).

Yet with few exceptions, we’ve seen little of that in this series. That’s because the Rockets have supplemented their on-ball pressure with a defensive tactic the Warriors themselves popularized: roaming off non-scoring threats.

Focus your attention away from the ball. Look at how P.J. Tucker is roaming:

Look at the jumbled mess of bodies between KD and the hoop.

Look at how the Rockets avoided Draymond Green and Kevon Looney like they passed gas.

The cumulative effect is that the open lanes for all those pressure-release tactics the Warriors love to use simply aren’t there. If Green or Looney catches the ball on the perimeter, the Rockets don’t care because they’re not scoring threats out there. The Rockets know those Warriors are only useful in that tight space on the court and are overloading that area to stop them from thriving there. They can’t provide any scoring value outside because of their own limitations, and they can’t provide any scoring value inside because there are too many opponents in the way.

With those teammates functionally useless offensively, the Rockets are forcing Golden State to play a man (or two) down. The whole point of an isolation is to get your best player into space against a single opponent he’s likely to beat. It’s called an isolation for a reason.

But when the opponent is able to plant obstacles in the way instead of having to vacate the space with the other four offensive players, it’s not really an isolation at all. It’s really just a single offensive player going against two or three defenders. That ends poorly even for the very best players.

No matter what style they employ, the Warriors are dealing with a double whammy of a problem. It’s exhausting enough to escape the tentacles of one active defender at the point of attack. It’s even more exhausting when there’s at least one more player to beat after that. When these two strategies work in tandem, you get a situation like this.

Every Rockets player is watching Durant. They know where he’s going and can dictate his next move however they please. Once he takes the bait, they can snap on him like a mouse trap and ruin the Warriors’ beautiful offense.

So how can Golden State beat this?

Get Andre Iguodala back

Nobody wants to hear about a team as stacked as the Warriors getting unlucky with injuries, but Iguodala’s absence has been significant. That’s partly because of Iguodala’s own unique skills and partly because the Warriors’ lack of depth behind him has inflated his worth. Either way, getting him back will go a long way towards solving the 5 on 4 problem.

Iguodala is a better shooter than Green or Looney, but his real strength comes from his ability to make himself a threat in places where he shouldn’t be. He’s a canny off-ball cutter that finds ways to slip through the small cracks the Rockets are leaving inside.

He’s also a master at the art of distraction. Remember that clip where every Rockets player was watching Durant? Contrast that with this post-up in Game 1 with Iguodala on the floor.

All Iguodala is doing is setting up a split cut on the opposite side of the floor. He’s not even looking at Durant! But that movement is enough to force two Rockets to look away from Durant, which opens up Green’s cut and the swing to Thompson for 3. That alone turns a 1-on-3 situation into an actual, effective isolation.

Other Warriors can do that, but only Iguodala has the proper sense of timing and enough of a reputation to make the opponent think he’s actually a threat.

Iguodala’s return also goes a long way towards another solution to the Rockets’ defensive strategy:

Get out on the break more!

What’s one way to solve a defensive alignment that has you flummoxed? Set up your attack before they can set up their defense. After thriving in Game 1, the Warriors have failed to get into the open floor enough off Rockets misses in Games 4 and 5.

Some of that is because they’ve failed to secure too many loose balls. Tucker in particular was a monster at snagging those 50/50 caroms that the Warriors would otherwise use to trigger fast breaks.

Iguodala’s presence helps greatly here, too. He is the Warriors’ most aggressive and most selfless wing runner, and can even push pace as a ball-handler, too. His ability to run the floor takes at least one defender with him, which opens more space for the others.

Without him, the Warriors don’t push tempo aggressively enough. That means more possessions against Houston’s set defense and more situations where they must go 5 on 4 to score. That tends to be ugly.

And ... we need to have a talk about KD

Durant is receiving the lion’s share of the blame for Golden State’s regression into sludge-ball. It’s tempting to fight back against this tide -- hell, I spent a ton of words doing just that! Houston’s defense and Iguodala’s absence are significant factors that deserve more ink.

But we also can’t let Durant off the hook. He must make smarter decisions than he has in these last two games.

Recall Steve Kerr’s message about Michael Jordan that TNT’s cameras caught for us. Here’s the text:

When I was with the Bulls we had a playoff game, and [Jordan] kept trying to score. And he was scoring, but we weren’t getting anything going. Phil Jackson said ‘who’s open?’ and [Jordan] said ‘John Paxson.’ I want you to trust your teammates early.

What you’re doing is you’re getting to the rim and then you’re trying to hit them. I want you to trust the first guy, and then move. Still attack, still look to score, but trust these guys, OK?”

Kerr is referring to an oft-retold story that originated in Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules (ironically, one in which Kerr himself wasn’t actually a member of the team). It was Game 5 of the 1991 Finals, and the Bulls were one win away from Jordan’s first title. Since taking over as the Bulls’ head coach the season prior, Phil Jackson had emphasized the need for Jordan to trust his teammates, to not do everything himself, to use his talents to put them in proper positions to succeed instead of going alone and getting mad when they didn’t rise to his level. Two years of push and pull with the strong-willed Jordan had put the Bulls on the doorstep of the ultimate success.

Yet when the Bulls needed to hammer the final nail, Jordan began to revert to his old habits. He was forcing shots, trying to do it all himself, and taking his teammates out of rhythm. The Bulls were locked in a tight game with a shorthanded Lakers team missing James Worthy and Byron Scott. A message had to be sent: find the open man.

Jordan knew how to do this. He knew the Lakers’ strategy was to have Magic Johnson roam off John Paxson to help clog the lane on MJ’s drives. He’d seen it all series. The coaching staff identified the Lakers’ strategy early on and explained the adjustment Jordan needed to make. He just needed a firm reminder to remember that the Lakers’ strategy was built on MJ’s reputation for not always trusting his teammates, and he could deliver the checkmate by shattering that stereotype.

And shatter it he did. On numerous fourth-quarter possessions, Jordan drove into the teeth of the Lakers’ defense and kicked it out to Paxson for open jumpers. Paxson supplied all the daggers to hold off the Lakers, and the Bulls reached the promised land.

Kevin Durant must know what the Rockets’ defensive strategy is by this point. Kerr’s story was a way for him to remind KD that its entire foundation is built on the stereotype that KD wants to attack to score, not attack to pass. It’s readying for KD to do exactly what KD keeps doing time after time: drive hard into the teeth of the defense to get a shot up.

But if KD pretends to do that while actually driving to find a teammate, it’d topple the entire approach. That’s the checkmate move.

The situations are not identical, of course. The Rockets are explicitly roaming off non-shooters, and that’s always going to be a problem when you put the ball in Durant’s hands instead of using him as the spacing threat. The ultimate fix to Houston’s strategy might be one Durant surely won’t like: turn him into league’s most accomplished decoy to drag help defenders away from a Stephen Curry-Klay Thompson two-man game, as Golden State experimented with successfully in Game 5.

But turning KD into a floor spacer on every play isn’t realistic. They got him to be KD, not Glorified Harrison Barnes. He will play isolation basketball. He will go one-on-one. He should, because he’s really damn good at it.

When he does, he must heed Kerr’s message. Being aggressive and getting teammates involved are not mutually exclusive. It’s the lesson Jordan fully internalized to get the Bulls over the top. It’s now the lesson KD must embrace to allow these Warriors to do the same.