Harden gets help from supporting cast in Game 2 rout of Warriors

NBA.com Global on May 17, 2018 02:59 PM
Harden gets help in Game 2 rout of Warriors
Houston Rockets forward Trevor Ariza (1) scores past Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) in the first half during Game 2 of the NBA Western Conference Finals, Wednesday, May 16, 2018, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

By Shaun Powell, NBA.com

HOUSTON — James Harden may be a Kia MVP finalist and lead singer of the Rockets but he wasn’t too proud to beg the other day when he sent out an SOS to his teammates.

In this case: Save Our Season.

“I can’t do it by myself,” Harden said.

Harden pumped 41 points yet came up empty, in terms of the Game 1 score and the quest to keep home-court advantage against the Warriors. Aside from an additional lift from Chris Paul, the Rockets offered little else and so Harden felt compelled to grab a bullhorn and let it be known: This isn’t how we got here.

Well. Evidently the Rockets listened to their finest player, their gut feeling and the drumbeat of desperation and decided to do something about it, or else. And so the Western finals, along with the Rockets, are far from done. There’s more to the Rockets, meaning, beyond what they opened the series with.

It’s all even at one game each because Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Trevor Ariza finally lent a hand, a foot, a well-placed elbow and especially a jump shot to the cause. The Rockets felt normal in Wednesday’s (Thursday, PHL time) 127-105 wipeout win because they felt whole. They took the lead almost from the jump, withstood a few teases from the Warriors in the second half and cruised. They looked more like the well-balanced Warriors than the Warriors did.

“They knew what they had to do and they did it,” said Warriors guard Stephen Curry.

Harden and Paul took most of the shots but the others made most of the plays that caused the beat-down. Ariza attacking and slashing? Done. Tucker dropping three's from the corner? Yes. Gordon going iso from the key and hitting from 25 feet? Absolutely.

These three are shadow players for the Rockets, players who chip in and help out, usually yielding to Harden and Paul or at least orbiting around them, looking for their opening. But Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time) was a bit of a role switch; at times, Ariza and Gordon and Tucker took turns taking over the game and pushed the lead far beyond the Warriors’ reach.

Tucker and Ariza were a combined 3-for-11 shooting in 58 minutes in Game 1. From a functional standpoint, they were no more than hood ornaments. But they joined Gordon and were straight fire Wednesday (THursday, PHL time). They combined for 68 points (compared to 43 for Harden-Paul) and more importantly were splendidly efficient with their aim, which was true: Ariza 7-for-9 shooting, Tucker 8-for-9, Gordon 8-for-15.

Even better sign: Harden and Paul looked for them constantly and fed them the ball, and that’s called respect.

“They got exactly what they wanted tonight,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “They got everybody going. I mean, Ariza, Tucker, Gordon. They got everybody involved. The exact opposite of Game 1. They brought it. They got it done.”

The 22 points represent a career playoff-high for Tucker, and almost matched the combined total of Curry and Klay Thompson combined, and this came with a bit of irony as well. Tucker was signed as a free agent in the offseason precisely for this, a chance to give Houston an edge at both ends in a possible Western showdown against the Warriors.

Here’s the twist, though: Tucker wasn’t the Rockets’ first choice. That would be Andre Iguodala, and somewhat understandably so; signing Iguodala would also strip the Warriors of a veteran with strong postseason credentials. Imagine if Iguodala left the Warriors, joined Houston and helped eliminate his old team?

“We tried,” said D’Antoni. “It was a no-brainer to try. I don’t know how close we were. I knew it would be hard.”

Instead, Iguodala stayed with Golden State and the Rockets’ Plan B was Tucker, a rugged forward who brought a corner three-pointer along with his no-nonsense approach.

So it was with some added satisfaction that Tucker has at least shown up in this series while Iguodala is living off his reputation and nothing more. Iguodala had five points and three turnovers Wednesday (Thursday, PHL time) and for the second straight game didn’t leave any meaningful impression. It’s the second time this season where Tucker hurt the Warriors; the first was in the opener six months ago when he scored 22 points, including a pair of free throws in the final seconds for a one-point Houston win.

“The guy’s a warrior,” said D’Antoni. “He finds a way to affect the game.”

Gordon had a splash-brothers game with six three-pointers and 27 points (matching Harden) in 32 minutes, and this came a few hours after he was announced as a finalist for the Sixth Man award.

“I just wanted to be aggressive,” he said. “It’s always good to be on a good team which makes my job easier. It’s been a blast since I’ve been here.”

Ariza was more economical than usual from deep, taking only three, and instead relied on his dribble game which perhaps caught the Warriors by surprise. Scoring in transition and in the half court, Ariza finished plays and forced the Warriors’ defense to pay close attention instead of doubling on Harden. He was handcuffed by foul trouble in Game 1 yet steered clear of that, which released his game.

“I forgot all about Game 1,” he said. “I was excited to be on the court. I focused all of my thoughts into this game and what I could do to help the team.”

Was this a fleeting sighting for the Rockets that’ll either fade or disappear completely when the series shifts to Oakland? D’Antoni doesn’t think so. He’s leaning on a season’s worth of evidence that tells him a 65-win team is more liable to reflect Game 2 than Game 1. For the Rockets’ playoff health, that’d better be true.

“You’re not going to come in and change the way you play,” he said. “We are who we are, and we had to be who we are. We just did it better and for longer (tonight). We’re very comfortable about who we are. We can beat anybody, anywhere and anytime playing like the way we play. It’s effective. It’s efficient.”

For the next three off-days it’s the Warriors who must solve mysteries for a change for their home games in Oakland. Curry was chilly in Game 2 and that raises questions about his recovery from a knee injury or his ability to shake free of Houston’s defense. Meanwhile, Draymond Green’s biggest contribution to the series so far was his Game 1 shove of Harden.

“We don't really worry about who we're playing against,” said Tucker. “If we come out and be some dogs and do what we did tonight, it doesn't matter. But if we don't, then we see the results in Game 1. So it's not about chess match or what they're doing. It's about us.”

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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