Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Anything But Predictable

Person A wakes up with a routine every day. Alarm clock, shower, breakfast- then maybe off to school or work. Forming these patterns keeps them in order and set up for success.

Person B wakes up every day and it's roller coaster from the second they step up out of the bed fifteen minutes late. They just try to hold on for dear life and hope they make it to five o'clock.

The Golden State Warriors are Person A. The Houston Rockets are Person B.

This isn't to say the Rockets don't have their own routines in preparing for games. Their playing style is just hard to predict, which so far this postseason has been an advantage and disadvantage simultaneously.

In round one against Mavericks, Houston looked every bit the 2 seed they earned following the regular season. They won 4-1, and confidence was at an all-time high.

In the semi-finals against the Clippers, they lost by a total of 74 points in three of the first four games. Their lone win was by a mere six points. They'd go on to close out the series with three double digit wins in a row by a combined 46 points.

Regardless of the remarkable comeback win (only the ninth such occurrence in NBA history), the NBA world gave Houston zero chances to beat the stellar Warriors led by NBA MVP Stephen Curry. After two close losses (Game 1 by four, Game 2 by 1), Houston didn't do much to dispel the notion the Warriors would win. But they showed if they were going down, they'd do so swinging with all they had.

Until Game 3.

Game 3 brought back memories of the two Clippers' blowouts. Curry's Warriors not only deflated Rocket Nation's balloon. They popped it and threw it in an incinerator, winning 115-80 in Houston. Curry was simply dazzling, scoring 40 points on 12-19 shooting (7-9 from beyond the arc). The Warriors did everything right, whether it was spreading the ball (26 assists to Houston's 15), or snagging it off the boards (60-39 rebounding advantage). They shot 45% from the field to Houston's 33%.

The Rockets' game is dependent on kicking, slashing and most of all- hitting three's. Going 5 for 25 at the worst time of the season hurt their entire effort. Not a single player had a positive plus/minus. James Harden was anything but an MVP candidate, going 3-16 for 17 points. His deadly stepback jumper wasn't falling, which spelled doom for Houston.

Howard had a respectable 14/14- yet without the deep ball to stretch the league's best defense, there was no shot at establishing a threatening post game playing from such a large deficit.

Down 3-0 after a 35 point loss at home would surely spell defeat in Game 4. Houston would just keel over and clear the way for the Warriors to get 9 days off until the NBA Finals and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Critics would begin the Harden bashing (if they hadn't already). Dwight's effort to get a ring would surely be snuffed out and a summer full of #DwightCantWin would begin.

Except Houston didn't get that memo. No really. There was a memo:

Instead of playing defeated at home again, Houston not only made it competitive. They dominated the first quarter, shooting 77% and scoring 45 points (8/9 from three). Video Game Josh Smith was back and the 2K Rockets were giving it their best shot, at one point building a 25 point lead. Curry took a nasty spill leaping over a pump-faking Trevor Ariza, landing on his back, arm and head. It not only scared the Warriors faithful, but Houston's as well. You might be in a Western Conference Finals game, but not a single person wanted to see the great Curry get injured. After a few minutes, Curry walked to the back with his arm being held. Ironically, Golden State played better after. They would get the score to within 10 points at halftime behind the hot shooting of Klay Thompson.

Curry passed all the concussion protocol tests, and halfway through the third returned as Warriors fans across the country breathed a sigh of relief. It could be debated if it was right or wrong- but teh coaching staff, trainers, Curry's father and Curry deemed him fit to play. Curry let off  a wonky 22 foot stepback, and many wondered if he was anything remotely close to the regular season MVP who won over the country. He'd update everyone after the game on his status.

"It was all minor stuff compared to how it looked. But I'll get some good rest and be ready to go. Since it happened to now, nothing has gotten worse."
The Warriors would drain 20 three-pointers (nine more than in their 35 point blowout), yet it was not enough on Monday night.

While the attention was on Curry to see how he was affected, Harden showed the pressure of being down 3-0 against the best team in the NBA hadn't affected him. He went 13-22 (7-10 from three) with nine rebounds and five assists. That was the kind of game he and the Rockets desperately needed following such a humiliating loss at home the game before.

"I always want to take it out on my opponent in a good way," Harden said. "Just being aggressive, taking shots, getting to the basket, not really forcing anything and allowing the game to come to me." - James Harden

Many viewed the lone Rockets' win as an anomaly and an abomination.  It wouldn't happen again to such a deep and talented Warriors team. After all- Curry was hurt. Except that excuse holds no water, as they got closer without him before he returned to form in the fourth quarter. Like it or not, Houston simply played better and sustained the lead wire-to-wire. But there was one more bone of contention for Houston skeptics:

Howard did it again. His unnecessary retaliation against a missed Bogut foul earned him a Flagrant 1. Many questioned it, after Al Horford was ejected for a lesser foul against Matthew Delladova the night before. If anything, it would be reviewed by the league and he'd be suspended for Game 5- dealing the Rockets a sure deathblow.

But the assumed suspension never happened:

This ruling was called into question, leaving us to wonder what exactly has to happen for a Flagrant 2 to be called? I don't think I want to find out at this point.

All of this brings us to Wednesday night- another elimination game for Harden and his Rockets. They are the first team since the 2006 Suns to win four such games in a row. The doubters are out in full force. Do I blame them? Nope. Houston is the lesser team. Even if the series was 2-2, they'd be at a disadvantage without homecourt to the tremendous Warriors. History has told us it can't be done. No team can win four games in a row after being down 3-0 (116-0). Does that matter to Harden? Nope.

“Most teams can’t come back from being down 3-1, but we did. We have to continue to fight — to go out there and play Rockets basketball. It’s win or go home. We understand that.”

Many look to Houston's coming back from 3-1 as a sign to believe. It in no way carries over from one series the next, especially against a team such as Golden State. But it does show the resilience and the ability Houston has to do what most think is impossible. It's easy to dismiss the underdogs against such a likeable favorite. Aside from Rockets fans, who doesn't want a Finals involving LeBron and Steph? It would be a ratings dream for Adam Silver, and exciting basketball for fans everywhere.

I discussed last week reasons why people dislike the Rockets. Yet there's one reason that trumps all.

People hate what they can't explain. 

Analysts and pundits get paid for living to research teams and players. They discuss who will win  and why. They discuss why the team won, and what led to the other losing. They pour through stats, plays and anything they can get their hands on to look as intelligent as possible.

But what explains a team being on the verge of basketball death not once. Not twice. Not three times- but four...and coming out on top?

Not a damn thing. No number of statistics, graphs or video breakdowns will enlighten anyone any further on why Houston has managed to stave off elimination four games in a row. Their unpredictable nature is not only frustrating for everyone involved (media, coaches, players, fans)...but also an advantage for them.

But being the team that is supposed to lose takes the pressure off a bit even on the road. The Warriors should close Houston out tonight at home. If for some reason they don't, all the skeptics will be looking Curry and Kerr's way.

Does Golden State have any idea what Houston team is coming to Oakland tonight?


And that's just how the Rockets prefer it.

*All quotes in this article obtained from ESPN.com and Jonathan Feigen of HoustonChronicle.com. 

Like it? Love it? Hate it? Let me know @SeanNeutron.

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