If the Golden State Warriors win tonight, and go on to crush Cleveland in the NBA Finals, let's remember what it felt like in the first quarter of Game 6 -- or before we knew the severity of Chris Paul's hamstring injury. A Golden State title will not stand as proof of its own inevitability.
Injuries happen, to stars and key role players. New superteams emerge. Core players age, late-round draft picks don't pay off in time, ring-chasers calcify, natural tensions between star and system plunge teams into a two-game haze at the worst time. The Miami Heat (semi-jokingly) promised five, six, seven titles after gathering three superstars, and at their highest highs, those promises didn't seem outlandish. They came very close to winning one in four seasons together.
If Golden State wins five more games, the most important variable in that happening may well have been Paul's injury.
And that is what makes the stakes so high tonight for them. They are set up to be in the Finals for the next three or four seasons, but nothing is guaranteed. Their four stars are either 30 years old or approaching it. The biggest tax bill in NBA history is coming.
Golden State should win at least one more title after this season. Its four stars are that good. But those four stars are (mostly) healthy now, and the Houston Rockets had them wobbling until their own star -- their second of two -- got hurt. Even without Andre Iguodala, Golden State has four of the consensus-top-20 (at worst) players, and two of the consensus top five. They still have a talent advantage over everyone. If that advantage isn't enough to vanquish everyone without facing elimination, then perhaps this whole winning-multiple-titles thing is as hard as Steve Kerr has warned. Perhaps we were all wrong.
Before you shout that those four haven't played their best in this series, individually or together, and that if they had, this would have ended a 4-1 whitewash, know that is the point: Ruts happen.
For Golden State to cement its place as one of the greatest teams ever, it might need this game, and this championship. Two titles in four years, with this talent, would count as a disappointment. Lose this season, and Golden State would need a couple more titles to join the pantheon. Win three of four, and you're there.
Paul's injury wouldn't change that. There are no asterisks for a championship. They are all hard. Injuries play a role in deciding all of them. It would make a title less emphatic, less memorable, less dominant, but it would still count.
The stakes are high for the Rockets, too. They could beat Cleveland, even without Paul. Nothing guarantees they will ever be five wins from the title again in the Harden era. But they are severely disadvantaged without the Point God.
Still, they have proven their mettle. Harden hasn't shot well from deep for much of this series, but he just keeps coming. He has battled on defense since Game 1. His step-back 3-pointer makes him unguardable. He inspires more fear with the ball in his hands than anyone but LeBron.
If a series-clinching buzzer-beater over the defending-champion Spurs somehow wasn't enough to kill the notion that Paul shrinks in the playoffs, this series -- and this run to a place he had never been -- should. He destroyed the Jazz with the same kind of crunch-time daggers he made so often for both the Hornets and Clippers in piling up a top-10 all-time postseason Player Efficiency Rating. (Some fans don't seem to remember those shots. The Grizzlies do. The Spurs do. Kobe Bryant remembers Paul's undermanned Hornets tying their 2011 first-round series 2-2, entirely because Paul had the game on a string.) He carried Houston across the finish line in Games 4 and 5, with contortionist, second-half shot-making in the latter.
Paul has never been the best player on a title team. How many players in history have? He suffered one epic, postseason meltdown (Oklahoma City, 2014) and participated in another (Clippers-Rockets, 2015). Collapses befall every modern star who earns enough big moments, save Michael Jordan.
Golden State, with Durant, entered this series 24-3 in the playoffs. Houston pushed the Warriors to where only their best was enough. The Warriors reached that level over the final three quarters of Game 6, and they might need to approach it again tonight.
Their performance did not represent some sea change from Durant iso-ball to Warriors nirvana. They tossed 276 passes, two dozen short of Kerr's stated goal and just seven more than their average for the series entering Game 6, per NBA.com. They set 35 ball screens for Curry, five fewer than in Game 5 and only one more than in Game 4, per Second Spectrum tracking data. Curry's touches and time of possession were almost unchanged from those two losses. They pushed pace, especially after Houston's live-ball turnovers, but the game featured just shy of 200 possessions -- right around the series average.
It seems they are using Klay Thompson more as the screener in pick-and-rolls. The data shows they aren't.
Durant ran seven isolations after he ran 11 and 13 in the prior two games, per Second Spectrum. That gap matters. It does not amount to a philosophical 180.
But there was something different about Golden State's alchemy Saturday -- something beyond shot-making. The Warriors moved more away from the ball, and they did it with both urgency and better timing.
That play starts with Draymond Green setting a back screen for Thompson. Green smashes Harden. The pick hits so flush, Harden can't maneuver back between Green and the basket -- and into position to switch onto Curry's drive.
Meanwhile, on the other side: Thompson flies off Green's pick, and continues around a pindown from Jordan Bell. Curry starts his drive at almost the exact millisecond Thompson and Bell come together:
The combination of speed and timing maximizes the distraction factor. No help defender even moves toward the rim.
That happened over and over. On this play, Durant dusted Harden and dropped the ball to Kevon Looney for a dunk:
No Houston defender accounts for Looney because they are preoccupied with Bell setting a perfectly timed pindown for Curry; Eric Gordon and Trevor Ariza are literally staring at Curry. Houston has generally ignored Golden State's centers. That's smart. The Warriors in Game 6 were determined to make the Rockets pay attention, or make them pay if they didn't.
This kind of timing lives somewhere in the gray area between orchestrated and improvised. It isn't scripted, exactly, but when the Warriors run their offense with verve, it happens organically.
Watch Durant slice past Harden early in the shot clock as would-be help defenders gawk at Thompson sprinting toward a double pindown:
That said, the Warriors appeared to install set pieces aimed at simultaneous action. Here's Curry driving around a pick as Green sets an off-ball screen for Durant:
Even on plays that lacked this Parker Lewis-level "Synchronize Swatches!" timing, Golden State executed with more vigor. Thompson's raw number of ball screens may not have budged in Game 6, but the pace with which he got in and out them was jarring. Watch Green zoom out of one decoy screen for Curry and into a cement wall pick that springs Thompson:
Green aborts his pick for Curry in such a blur, without even nudging Curry's man (Gordon), that Gordon doesn't think he should switch. Problem: Green's man (Capela) anticipates a switch and lingers near Curry. That puts him behind the next action, which in turn forces Ariza to slither around Green's pick -- all leading to Thompson's triple.
This stuff doesn't work at half-speed. Harden ambled over to block this first-quarter Durant drive, in part because nothing was happening on the weak side to distract him -- just Thompson, Looney and Green chilling so close to each other that Durant had no clean passing lane to any of them:
Stagnancy breeds more stagnancy:
Durant has made plenty of those shots, including several in Game 1, when the world bemoaned Golden State's invincibility. When he makes more of them, the Warriors are invincible. But they are hard shots, and the Rockets have the long, physical, nasty defenders to make them harder. When Durant takes more than usual, it is often a sign Golden State has veered further toward Durantism than they would like.
When the Warriors move with purpose, they land naturally on the right stylistic mix. A cycle begins to power itself: more cuts, teammates on higher alert for cutters, more slip-ups from the unnerved opposing defense. Curry and Thompson zipped into a lot of give-it-up, get-it-back 3s:
The power of the Curry pick-and-roll often isn't in the pick-and-roll itself. It is in what comes after: Curry drawing a switch, dropping the ball off in a crowd, sewing confusion about who is responsible for him. The Warriors attempted only 4.9 corner 3s per game in the regular season, fourth-fewest in the league. They wormed their way into 11 in Game 6. An above-average number is a healthy indicator.
Houston's defense finally cracked on some of those 3s. But the Warriors contributed to that, just as Houston's defense contributed to Golden State's trudging through mud in Games 4 and 5.
Overall, the Warriors traveled almost 17 combined miles in Game 6, with about 9.3 coming on offense -- both highs for the series, per Second Spectrum data.
It is not a coincidence so many of those clips featured Curry. He is Golden State's most important player, both on and off the ball -- the current powering their offense. They have no rhythm when he sits; they are minus-15 in the 20 minutes Durant has logged without Curry since Game 3.
If the game is close, it will be fascinating to see how long Kerr plays his stars. He chanced a second-half stint in Game 6 with all three of Curry, Thompson and Green on the bench. That seems, umm, risky. Meanwhile, the refashioned Death Lineup featuring those four and Shaun Livingston has logged just 17 minutes all season, including eight in this series. The Warriors are plus-18 in those 17 minutes.
David West has brought nothing. Bell shows flashes. Looney has been intermittently useful, much less so if he cannot finish layups.
Catch-and-shoot corner 3s are a bellwether for Houston, too. The Rockets were 2-of-9 in Game 6, and if at least half their 3s are of the catch-and-shoot variety, that is a good sign. Houston was working to generate more of them in Game 6. Green is paying Capela zero attention away from the ball, plopping himself near the rim as a last line of defense. The Rockets read that and had Capela set off-ball picks as Harden (or Gordon) drove. One such pick unlocked Gerald Green in the corner; Gordon overthrew him:
Green was open here, too, before whatever this is happened:
(That probably should have been a foul on Green or a defensive three-second violation -- or both. I would bet good money Houston has privately told the league to be on lookout for Green camping in the lane.)
Keep an eye on the Green-Capela chess match. Houston, on those plays, shifted Capela away from the paint to leverage him as a screener. That can work if Harden sees it and the Rockets have time for a drive-and-kick. That is one benefit of going earlier in the shot clock -- and one reason the Warriors sometimes fight switching Curry onto Harden as long as possible: If there are two or three seconds left, Harden has no choice but to go headlong. If there are five-plus ticks left, Green has to worry about more possibilities.
Capela is more comfortable around the rim gobbling lobs and rebounds. But putting him there shrinks the distance between Harden and Capela, allowing Green to almost defend both at once. He is the best in the league at that. He can cleverly stunt toward Harden, bait him into a lob and then rush back to deflect it:
Harden is a master at eye (and beard) fakes and releases that disguise the difference between a shot and a pass. He has fooled Green at least as much as Green has fooled him. What a battle.
When Capela and Tucker are on the same side of the floor -- Capela near the rim, Tucker in the corner -- the odds tilt a little more toward the Warriors, especially if Green and Durant are the two help defenders involved. They cover so much ground.
Regardless of where he is, Capela has to be impactful on offense for Houston to have any chance without Paul.
There are so many other games within the game tonight: Golden State's occasionally lax 3-point defense and communication on switches; foul trouble; last-ditch rotation changes; Tucker's flare screens; Capela slipping hard to the rim, and the Warriors' ability to stick with him; whether the Warriors set up the Curry-Durant pick-and-roll without other bodies cluttering it up; more unconventional pick-and-roll combinations -- Curry has set just four ball screens for Durant all series(!); points from Livingston and Green; and more.
But this game is one to savor for its big-picture implications. There is history at stake, and if the Rockets find a way, there will be much to grapple with in Oakland.