OAKLAND, Calif. — The NBA playoffs are the arena of superstars, if only because their games are the most likely to endure. Proper, focused gameplanning will probe for any point of weakness. What passes on a random Wednesday in March might crumble over seven games of merciless scrutiny. There is nowhere to hide—no corner of the court where a savvy opponent cannot find you, drag you into the light, and lay your limitations bare for all to see. To win is to survive.
Because of this, a competitive playoff series can whittle a team down, layer for layer, until only its sturdiest parts remain: those so skilled and immutable that little can be done to stop them. Kevin Durant again hoisted jumpers over the top of the Rockets on Tuesday night, totaling 29 points. James Harden, despite taking a brutal jab to the eyes in the first quarter, waltzed into 29 points of his own on similar efficiency. Both broke down defenses and forced compromised opponents to adjust. Their night had all the trappings of a classic duel … save for the fair footing. What tipped the balance wasn’t the officiating—a third-rail topic in the aftermath of Game 1—but the attention paid at the margins. Golden State fought for every rebound it could. Houston, stifled in so many of its actions, gave possessions away. “We were flying around,” Klay Thompson said. “Our hands were active. We were in the passing lanes.” And in the end, the Warriors took 14 more shots than did the Rockets, and won Game 2 by just six, 115-109.
“They got 91 shots,” Chris Paul said. “We got 77 up. Obviously we see we got to be better on the glass, take better care of the ball. That’s something we did well most of the season and we haven’t done well in the first two games.” The latter seems achievable. The former less so. Houston was one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the regular season, a flaw so glaring as to force changes to the Rockets’ defensive scheme. When they switch as much as the Warriors all but require, bigs are dragged out to the perimeter and guards left to fend for loose balls. What followed was a leveraging of tactical specificity: Draymond Green pulled down five offensive rebounds, Andre Iguodala four, and the Warriors on the whole recouped more than a third of their own misses.
“I thought we played really hard right from the beginning,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “We forced a lot of turnovers, got to the loose balls, got some rebounds. Even though the threes weren’t going, we were playing well. We were making strides, putting a lot of pressure on them.”
Imagine lining up against one of the most talented basketball teams ever constructed, with three of the greatest shooters to ever play the game. It takes an all-out effort just to stop them—so much so that it leaves the defense itself destabilized in the process. “That’s something that doesn’t show up in the stat sheet or in the naked eye: how much attention that Steph, Klay, and KD draw,” Iguodala said. “They draw so much attention that it leaves opportunities to get offensive rebounds. And they shoot the ball so well that it usually comes off soft off the rim.” When the Warriors are fully locked in, this becomes a double bind. Give scorers like Curry and Durant the respect they deserve, the boards go up for grabs. Play more conservatively and those same scorers will beat you outright—just as they have everyone else.
Iguodala compared the rebounding opportunities he saw in Game 2 to the downhill pick-and-rolls that allow Green to throw him alley-oops. (And he would know; Iguodala, it should be noted, is this postseason’s unexpected leader in total dunks.) Both are the product of some other action, and both are effectively two-on-one situations. Just as one defender has trouble guarding a playmaker like Green and cutter like Iguodala at the same time, they would have trouble boxing out two forwards as strong and savvy as these.
If the defense misses an assignment—any assignment—the problems compound. “They hurt us with rebounds and they hurt us with us,” Rockets guard Austin Rivers said. “We messed up a lot of switches. We switch a lot and they know that. They’re smart. They see that and do a lot of diversions.” Even when a standby defender was able to sprint out to manage one of Houston’s breakdowns, they often surrendered a second chance in the process.
It’s all too tempting, when allowing so many offensive rebounds, to put more size on the floor. Nene, perhaps, or rebounding specialist Kenneth Faried. What’s particularly brutal about the Warriors is the way they render those sorts of bigs untenable. To the extent that the Rockets can play Nene in this series, he needs to play against carefully chosen, lower-stakes lineups—else Curry string him out and shoot threes over him as he did to close out Game 1. Faried is such a liability defending in space that the notion of him hanging with the Warriors—one of the best-spaced and best-passing teams we’ve ever seen—is a non-starter. The lethality of the Death Lineup isn’t always fast-acting. It can be slow and brutal, a strategic constriction that limits what moves an opponent can make, and brings their every mistake to a painful close.