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Thursday, May 09, 2019

No More Excuses Left for Houston

The Houston Rockets are built to beat the Golden State Warriors, or so they have declared for the past several years.

There are no more excuses left for Houston. Kevin Durant missed the fourth quarter of game five due to injury, and he is out of action indefinitely, with his strained right calf to be reevaluated next week. That means that he will not return to action until at least the Western Conference Finals, assuming that the Warriors advance to the next round.

If the Rockets are indeed built to beat the Warriors, this is their best--and perhaps last--chance to do it.

Durant's injury-induced absence impacts multiple narratives:

1) Who is Golden State's most valuable player--Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry?

2) How valuable is James Harden when it matters most?

3) How insane is it to pay nearly $160 million in a four year span to Chris Paul, an aging, small, injury-prone point guard who has a long history of playoff failures?

4) Are the Rockets well-built to beat the Warriors?

If you do not already understand that Durant's size and skill set provide value that Curry cannot provide, nothing is likely to change your mind. If the Warriors are eliminated by the Rockets, then you will cite Curry's finger injury, or the difficulty of trying to make it to five straight NBA Finals (a feat no NBA team has accomplished since Bill Russell's Boston Celtics made it to 10 straight NBA Finals from 1957-66) rather than concede that the reigning two-time Finals MVP is Golden State's best player. The Warriors won one title and had a record-breaking 73 win season (culminating in a Finals loss) without Durant, but with Durant they have become a team for the ages, now just nine wins away from their third straight title and their fourth title in a five year span. The playoffs are what matters most, and Durant has been at his best when it matters most. Curry is a great regular season player, a very good playoff player and a member of three championship teams for which he has not won a single Finals MVP. Has there ever been a player who was the best player on a three-time champion who never won a Finals MVP since the award was first handed out in 1969?

Harden is not valuable when it matters most. We already knew that, dating all the way back to when he was the choking third option on Oklahoma City's 2012 NBA Finalists. We have seen Harden benched in the fourth quarter of a key playoff game (the "sin" that played a major role in Kevin McHale being fired the next season), we have seen Harden's numerous brickfests in elimination games and we have seen Harden set playoff records for most turnovers. So, it is not at all surprising that with Durant out of action and the series up for grabs--game five winners in 2-2 series win the series over 80% of the time, though Harden found a way to be on the wrong end of that statistic last year--Harden attempted just one field goal down the stretch in the fourth quarter. Of course, the "stat gurus" will love Harden's "efficient" production of 31 points on just 16 field goal attempts--but "efficiency" is not the answer to everything and is not always the recipe for championship success. Harden needed to grab that fourth quarter by the throat, assert his dominance and make sure that his team won. Instead, he was passive and did not have an impact when it mattered most. That mentality--not just in one game but over his career--is Harden's defining legacy unless and until he changes that mentality.

The answer to question three is simple: 11 points on 3-14 field goal shooting. That is what Paul produced in the must-win game five, with Durant out of action, Harden drifting out of view and the Rockets' realistic chance to win the series on the line. At least we don't have to hear any more nonsense about how Houston would have eliminated Golden State last year if only Paul had been healthy. Read that again: 11 points on 3-14 field goal shooting. The "stat gurus" have always placed a high value on Paul's "efficiency" but his "efficiency"--which, by the way, often disappears at crucial times--is as meaningless as Harden's.

It is no accident that both Paul and Harden are strangers to the NBA Finals despite spending most of their careers on excellent teams (yes, Harden has one Finals appearance as a bricklaying caddy for Durant and Russell Westbrook); "efficiency" is important but the most important trait for a great basketball player is the ability to rise to the occasion and dominate when the stakes are the highest. When Bill Russell was a color commentator on CBS' NBA telecasts, he used to say that it matters more when you score than how much you score. When you score is also often more important than how efficiently you score. There is such a thing as a bad 10-16 shooting performance, and a good 9-23 shooting performance (and vice versa); context matters, so a player who shoots 9-23 but is aggressive and contributes in other ways (i.e., Stephen Curry last night) is more valuable than a player who shoots 10-16 but disappears in the fourth quarter with the game on the line (i.e., James Harden last night).

Are the Rockets well-built to beat the Warriors? Read the above with understanding and you know the answer. That being said, it is possible that the Rockets can win two games against a Warriors team that is without the services of Kevin Durant and DeMarcus Cousins, that has seen Stephen Curry disappearing for significant chunks of time and Klay Thompson not looking like himself. The Rockets should beat the Warriors, particularly if they are even close to as good, smart and tough as they tout themselves to be.

The Rockets may very well protect home court in game six, and then game seven becomes a 48 minute crapshoot. However, I expect Golden State to win a close game six or, failing that, a not so close game seven. Harden and Paul have not developed a championship mentality yet, and it is unlikely that they will develop it now.

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:19 PM