There are plenty of reasonable rationales for the Rockets' 116-104 loss against the skeleton-crew Warriors on Wednesday. Houston came to Golden State on the final leg of a four-game road trip, and the Christmas Day tilt at the Chase Center marked the most-anticipated game of the Warriors' season. But chalking Houston's loss up to external factors belies the point.
Golden State revealed some of the Rockets' key vulnerabilities on Wednesday, even as James Harden and Co. return home sitting fourth in the West at 21–10. It's been largely smooth sailing in the first year of the Russell Westbrook era, though the Rockets remain far from infallible.
Golden State opted to consistently double-team Harden throughout Wednesday's contest, continuing a defensive scheme employed throughout the NBA against the two-time scoring champion. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr took a page out of Denver coach Mike Malone's playbook, aggressively sending two defenders at Harden as soon as he crossed half court. The strategy worked to near perfection.
Harden finished the night with 24 points on an efficient 9-18 from the field and 6-10 from three, but his volume was dampened by the Warriors' trap. Harden dropped 36 against the Warriors on Nov. 6, taking advantage of a roster that simply couldn't defend him in isolation. Kerr adapted on Wednesday, and the unconventional tactic worked to a tee.
Non-Harden Rockets shot just 31.7% in Golden State, and they made 10 of 41 threes. The wing trio of Ben McLemore, Austin Rivers and Danuel House Jr. shot 8-26 on triples, and Clint Capela was a team-worst minus-20 in 29 minutes. Yet Houston's role players don't hold the greatest culpability for Wednesday's loss. That honor goes to Russell Westbrook.
The 2016-17 MVP has been on an absolute tear of late, entering Christmas Day averaging 29.1 points and seven assists per game in his last eight contests, shooting 50% from the field. A healed hand and greater comfort in the Rockets' attack led to an improved version of Westbrook after a middling start, and he thrashed opponents when they chose to double Harden.
Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni often placed Westbrook on the wing as Harden isolated atop the key, and Westbrook rolled downhill with a vengeance when receiving a pass following a Harden double. The aggressiveness—and respectable percentage from three—led to Westbrook's best stretch this season, adding a flood of open looks for teammates in the process. Houston appeared to have solved the Harden trap for good.
Wednesday marked a serious regression for Westbrook and the Rockets. The UCLA product made just 11 of 32 shots in Golden State, and he failed to make a three on eight attempts. The Warriors sagged off Westbrook to a severe degree, but he couldn't make them pay. When Westbrook's shot stalls, so does Houston's attack.
The Christmas Day loss can be in-part attributed to a poor shooting night, though Houston's defensive effort lagged for much of the afternoon. Houston jogged back in transition and got beat on the glass, waltzing through the opening two quarters with a jarring lack of intensity for a national TV matchup.
Golden State finished the afternoon with an 18-14 lead in fast-break points as well as a 52-34 edge in the paint. Rotations were slow near the rim. Communication breakdowns led to wide-open looks. With the Splash Brothers out of commission, Golden State punished the Rockets in the paint.
We should hesitate to draw grand conclusions from Wednesday's loss, especially considering the circumstances of the matchup. The Rockets will return home on a 56-win pace, trending toward home court in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
Yet we shouldn't brush aside their legitimate concerns as we approach 2020. Houston is still susceptible to cold stretches when Harden is doubled, and its defensive effort oscillates by the quarter. The Rockets have the top-end talent to reach their first Finals since 1995. But this is anything but a finished product as we roll into the next phase of the NBA calendar.