Golden State slowed but not stopped

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By OWEN PENCE
College Contributor Network

Kevin McHale knows what it's like to be down 2-0 against an all-time great opponent, and all mandatory tropes of false optimism aside, there isn't much hope to be had.

28 years ago in the 1987 NBA Finals, McHale's Celtics headed back to their beloved city of Boston, having dropped games one and two to the hated Showtime Lakers by a relatively comfortable margin. While Boston was able to win two of their three final home games, the third was stolen in historic form, courtesy of a "baby" skyhook from Magic Johnson that instantly became known as one of the greatest shots in NBA history.

The Celtics ended up losing in six, a moral victory if there ever was one (and for teams championed by Larry Bird, there weren't) considering the various ailments plaguing certain players in green and white and an insane 26-13-8 and 2 stat-line posted by Johnson over the course of the six games.

Fast forward to 2015, and although McHale doesn't find himself in a purely identical situation, the bleakness meter registers just as high. By historical standards, using margin of victory as an (albeit somewhat limited) indicator of team dominance, this year's Golden State Warriors were the 8th best regular season team of all time, four spots ahead of the '87 Lakers despite playing in a mightily competitive conference. Doubting the significance of a double-digit point differential? Consider, six of the top seven teams on the aforementioned list ended up winning the Larry O'Brien trophy. ESPN's BPI projections, which currently give McHale's Houston Rockets a 7 percent chance of advancing to the Finals, may have been nicer to Houston than would be advised.

Then again, Golden State hasn't been such an unstoppable force this postseason, as last night's slim 99-98 victory proved in rather dramatic fashion. The Rockets erased a 17 point first half deficit, withstood another brilliant shooting performance from MVP Stephen Curry, and managed 19 and 17 from Dwight Howard despite a left knee sprain that threatened to keep him out of the game entirely. Yet in the final seconds, James Harden, he of the 38 point 10 rebound 9 assist clinic of basketball brilliance, finally felt the wrath of Lil B, which should never under any circumstance be underestimated, and coughed up a chance to writhe game two from Golden State's grasp.

Much has been made of McHale's decision not to call timeout after procuring possession, down one with just nine seconds remaining. However, despite a plethora of second-guessing critics such as ESPN's post-game analysts Doug Collins and Jalen Rose, the execution, not the coaching decision should shoulder the blame for Houston's last second loss.

Thanks to an ill-advised offensive rebound attempt by Draymond Green, Harden was left with two options as he ran the floor with time ticking away, both of which could easily have led to a game-winning bucket.

This isn't an automatic mid-range shot for The Bearded One, but it's just as good as any look he would've had coming out of a timeout. Additionally, and even more frustratingly for Rockets faithful, is the cutting Terrence Jones, whose lane to an uncontested dunk was clearer than Don Draper's mind on the coast of California. Who knows what compelled Harden to forgo these high percentage plays and instead dish the ball to an unsuspecting Dwight Howard (once again, the power of Lil B must not be overlooked), but it certainly wasn't McHale's fault Houston's final possession ended in a scramble of panic and desperation.

While this fateful turnover most likely put a cap on Houston's 2015 season, they've proven there is indeed a way to get under the Warriors skin and, at the very least, make them sweat for a full 48 minutes, a concept they were largely unfamiliar with through 82 games.

One way to make a team sweat, especially one that led the league in defensive efficiency, is to run a spread pick and roll offense with James Harden at the helm. Having James Harden as your ball handler in pick and roll situations isn't a luxury afforded to every NBA team, as evidenced by the level of respect Harden has attained when sinking his claws into the teeth of this vaunted Warriors D. While Klay Thompson performed admirably attempting to slow Harden for much of game two, a team effort is required to prevent him from creating scoring opportunities, and even then, sometimes it's not enough.

Here, Houston clears the floor for a high Harden-Jones pick and roll on a must score possession with less than a minute remaining in regulation. In order to prevent Harden from hitting a game tying three, Thompson goes over the screen set by Jones, leaving Draymond Green on an island, responsible for slowing Harden down as he gains steam driving towards the basket. Even for someone recently named to the NBA's Defensive 1st Team (no, not him), trying to slow a driving Harden is like attempting to stop a freight train by laying on the tracks and hoping the conductor sees you in time to hit the brakes.

Able to anticipate Green's inevitably doomed fate, Andrew Bogut, member of the NBA's Defensive 2nd Team, leaves his man to help Green, now upping the number of Warrior defenders guarding Harden to three. This in turn frees Dwight Howard for an easy alley oop, as Terrence Jones looks on, also unguarded, from the top of the key.

Not every pick and roll ball-handler would attract the bevy of attention Harden does when driving to the hoop, but one who would, LeBron James, just happens to be Golden State's most likely finals opponent. James converted almost 64 percent of his looks from within ten feet of the basket during the regular season, a dominant number for someone who is frequently swarmed in a manner not dissimilar to Harden upon entering the paint. Plop Timofey Mozgov under the hoop in place of Howard, and maybe McHale has outlined one way to rattle a Warrior defense that has only allowed 100 points twice this postseason.

On the opposite side of the ball, Golden State's playoff offensive metrics are nearly identical to their regular season numbers, save for a slightly higher turnover ratio and a considerably slower pace of play. It's not uncommon for the tempo of games to slow down come May and June, but that doesn't mean the Warriors should be subscribing to such antiquated norms that their predecessors have set.

This slow it down style of basketball becomes magnified late in games (as it did last night), when the Warriors attempt to preserve a lead by running as much clock as possible.

Here, with nine seconds remaining on the shot clock, Curry has a highly desired isolation mismatch with Dwight Howard and a chance to ice the game if he so desires. Instead, Curry waits to make his move, allowing James Harden to leave his man and double Curry above the three-point line. This leaves Golden State with a 3 on 2 on the left side of the court, but only minimal time to execute. After Harden bothers Curry's initial pass, the ball finally finds Harrison Barnes in the corner, who rushes to the hoop and misses a reverse layup as the shot clock expires. Of course we now know what would happen next, but by doubling Curry late in the shot clock (or as the ball-handler in pick and roll situations which Houston has also done), the Rockets gave themselves a chance to win the game, not tie it, on their final possession.

Houston can get away with attempting to trap Curry thanks to defensive anchors Howard and Trevor Ariza, both of whom have kept the Rockets afloat when it appeared as if their ship was sinking. During the playoffs, McHale's team has caved when Howard and Ariza sit, giving up 112.4 and 114.5 points per 100 possessions respectively when his stalwarts are on the bench as opposed to 104.5 and 104.9 when they play.

Again, not everyone has a Dwight Howard to protect the paint, but the looming Cleveland Cavaliers do in center Timofey Mozgov, whose on/off court numbers these playoffs have been even more impressive than those of Howard and/or Ariza. If David Blatt is smart, assuming Cleveland and Golden State do advance in the coming week (or two), he'll take a page (or two) out of McHale's limited, but recently effective book of coaching, and pressure Curry late in the shot clock when Golden State slows tempo and relies on their MVP to take them to the promise land.

As for the Rockets themselves, while their season may soon reach a fate similar to the one realized 28 years ago by McHale's Boston Celtics, they've shown that it is possible to hang with Golden State and maybe, just maybe, knock them off.

Then again, if history is an accurate indicator, this may just be a way to make the inevitable interesting, rather than coming to terms with the fact that, by golly a jump-shooting team is about to win the title!!!!

After all, dominance of this caliber tends not to lie.

Owen Pence is a freshman at Northeastern University. He was born in New York, raised in Maine, and resides in Boston. Follow him on Twitter: @OwenPence
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