The Rockets are the latest team to take on the burden of attempting to come back from an 0-3 deficit.
One hundred and seventeen times an NBA team has attempted to rally from an 0-3 playoff series deficit and one hundred and seventeen times they have failed. Winning four straight postseason games against any opponent would prove difficult. To do so while at risk of elimination in every game against an opponent capable of winning three straight games themselves has shown to be near impossible.
The Rockets now live and operate in the shadow of that history. On Monday, Houston warded off Golden State's repeated runs to avoid a sweep. A 1-3 deficit is only marginally less dire by the numbers. It does, however, give hope to a Rockets team that made the same improbable climb in their previous series against the Clippers. Houston survived that series after losing three of its first four games by way of a wake-up call in Game 5, a stroke of the supernatural in Game 6, and a gutsy close-out effort in Game 7.
Such a course is decidedly more difficult against the Warriors—a superior opponent by any measure. Golden State will not wear down in the same way Los Angeles did. Its supporting pieces are more reliable and more skilled. Its defense doesn't demand the same kind of furious rotation, drawing instead on the roster's collective flexibility. Assuming that Stephen Curry isn't limited by any lasting effects from his horrible fall in Game 4, the Warriors should be the favorites in every remaining game in this series.
Beating an opponent of this caliber requires that the Rockets be great for almost every one of the 144 minutes that might remain in this series. Room for error is the luxury of the better team. Houston, instead, faces the possession-to-possession pressure that comes in working uphill. That can either be a powerful motivator (as was the case for the Rockets in the conference semis) or an overwhelming one.
Consider the burden that James Harden shoulders in this series. Houston cannot score against Golden State without him. Every minute of Harden's rest in this series has coincided with atrocious scoring efficiency—not at all surprising given the lack of reliable shot creators on the roster. Dwight Howard has largely floundered in the post. Attempts at dribble penetration aren't threatening enough to force rotation. In even spot minutes without Harden, the Rockets' shooters gasp for open air (they've shot just 17.6% on three-pointers in Harden's absence) and the man with the ball is handled simply.
Harden, though, needs not only to play big minutes but also to play what is essentially unstoppable basketball. When Harden is at full command of his game—getting to the line at will, finishing around the rim, and connecting on contested jumpers—the Rockets are competitive. In the one game of this series where that wasn't the case, the Warriors won by 35 points. Houston's survival in this series is hinged to Harden's ability to overcome strong on-ball defense from Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson, whose purpose is to defy the probability of his step-backs. If those shots don't fall, the Rockets' offense has virtually no safety net.
One could say the same of Howard in regard to Houston's defense. Throughout this series, Howard has been the only back-line defender capable of disrupting what the Warriors do. Golden State has no fear of Josh Smith, Terrence Jones, or Clint Capela. Only Howard can disrupt the rhythm of Warriors ball handlers and force bigs to pass out from deep position. Thus far, his presence in this series has translated to 5% fewer shot attempts from the restricted area for Golden State.
The pain of extending a playoff series, though, comes in adjustment. With every game the Warriors have more opportunity to test Howard. Curry has already found success with scoop shots (a difficult attempt, but an effective one for Curry) that loft over Howard's contests. If Golden State can find ways to attack or circumvent Howard, Houston's means of subsistence would begin to crumble. That might sound like something easier said than done, though it could be accomplished through a mechanism as simple as foul trouble. As with Harden, every minute the Rockets play without Howard threatens to end their season.
This is a perilous way to play basketball. If the Rockets' best players make the most of their minutes and the backing ensemble is perfectly in tune, this series could stretch on. Yet all it would take to end Houston's season would be a return to mortality for Harden, an off night for Howard, an invisible night by Terrence Jones, an all-too-visible night for Josh Smith, or errant shooting from Houston's three-point gunners. So much rests on the Rockets' ability to play uniformly great basketball. Doing so for a single game against the Warriors is challenge enough. To sustain that level of play for three games would be a feat worthy of its historic implications.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.