As the Golden State Warriors head into Game 3 of the NBA Finals with the series tied at 1-1, I can’t help but reflect on the Western Conference Finals and where it went wrong for the Houston Rockets. Watching Steph Curry go 2-15 from behind the arc during a Game 2 loss to the Cavaliers was not only shocking, but evoked questions such as “Why couldn’t he have done that against us?” and “When did Curry start playing like Game 5 Harden?”
There is little reason to believe that the Warriors will be any less dominant next season, and if the Rockets hope to continue their pursuit of a championship during the 2015-16 campaign they’re going to need to find a way to beat Golden State. With that, it’s important to review what happened to the Rockets when they ran into a Warriors team with championship aspirations.
Howard vs. Bogut/Ezeli
During the Western Conference Finals, Dwight Howard put up some decent numbers (14.4 points per game, 14.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks), but the dominance that we’ve come to expect from Howard was relatively contained by Golden State’s duo of Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli. While Bogut’s stat line wasn’t quite as “impressive” as Dwight’s, Bogut also played 14 fewer minutes per game than Howard and still managed to average 1.8 blocks per game, including 5 blocks in a huge Game 2 victory for the Warriors.
When Bogut went to the bench many expected that to be Dwight’s time to really shine, but the inspired play of Festus Ezeli quickly dashed those hopes. Ezeli gave the Warriors huge minutes with Bogut on the bench, including 12 points, 9 rebounds and a block in a series-clinching Game 5.
Howard has a lot to think about over the summer, but if the Rockets end up meeting the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals next year, he’s going to need to play a level above Bogut and several levels above Ezeli.
Harden vs. Curry
This was the match up that James Harden was supposed to show the world why he should have won the MVP. This was the match up that James Harden could have silenced all the critics and led Houston back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1995.
This was not the match up where any of that happened.
Instead, we got a Jekyll and Hyde version of Harden that hurt the Rockets when they needed him the most. From a 38 point, 10 rebound and 9 assist Game 2 to a 17 point Game 3 where he went 3-16 from the field, only to rebound with a 45 point Game 4 and finally end the series with a 12 turnover Game 5. Despite everything, Harden still managed to average 28.4 points, 7.8 rebounds and 6.4 assists, but it’s a small consolation as the Rockets were sent packing after five games.
In the games where Harden played well, Curry went punch for punch with Harden, and in the games where Harden played poorly, Curry made Harden look like only one of them was a superstar. For the Rockets to have any chance of challenging the Warriors next year, Harden absolutely cannot put on a disappearing act like he did during the Western Conference Finals.
Perhaps this is the proof Daryl Morey needs to convince him that the Rockets need one more player who can create his own shot and take the offensive pressure off of Harden, a question we will see answered during free agency most likely. Nevertheless, the Rockets are on the cusp of being a championship team, and the last thing anyone wants is for them to suffer a fate similar to those of the Oklahoma City Thunder where they just can’t get over the last hump.
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