The Rockets are stealing a method from the Cavs against the Warriors, and it worked with their season on the line

  • The Houston Rockets have adopted the Cleveland Cavaliers’ strategy of frequently attacking Stephen Curry while on offence.
  • Curry has been targeted more in these playoffs than ever before in his career.
  • After the Rockets’ stagnant Game 1 loss, they upped the energy and showed why they were one of the NBA’s elite offenses all season, beating the Warriors in Game 2.

The Houston Rockets have made clear one of their priorities on offence in the Western Conference finals: attacking Stephen Curry.

The game plan is one the Cleveland Cavaliers have featured prominently when facing the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, particularly in 2016, when they won the championship. They often had whichever player Curry was guarding set a screen for Kyrie Irving or LeBron James, forcing a switch so they could attack the Warriors’ weakest defender.

The Rockets have adopted the strategy, and it helped in Game 2, as they came up with a huge 127-105 win that evened the series at 1-1.

According to ESPN’s Chris Haynes, the Rockets targeted Curry on 23 possessions in Game 2, up from 20 in Game 1. He guarded 15 isolation plays in Game 1 and 13 in Game 2, both of which are more than he had ever defended in the regular season or postseason, according to Haynes.

“It’s obviously one of our things we like to do,” Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni said after Game 2.

The Rockets’ goal is to isolate using James Harden and Chris Paul, two talented one-on-one players, to force a breakdown in the Warriors’ defence, then hit the open man.

Curry is a better and peskier defender than he often gets credit for, but he remains the weakest link among the Warriors’ stars. He anticipated this game plan, telling reporters before the series started that he hoped the Rockets went after him on every possession. This attack isn’t a surprise.

But Curry didn’t do himself any favours in Game 2 by playing out of position and reacting slowly. Below, Trevor Ariza slipped a screen, expecting Curry to lunge out on the ball handler. It created a 4-on-3 situation for the Rockets. Curry ended up in no-man’s-land.

Other times, the Rockets’ stars just went straight at Curry. There are questions to be asked about how healthy Curry is after returning from a sprained MCL – his lateral quickness is not there.

Curry hasn’t fared all that poorly in these situations. According to Second Spectrum data provided to the NBA, Curry has held opponents to 48% shooting in the conference finals. That’s a better percentage than Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Andre Iguodala. Some of that, however, may be because the defensive breakdowns begin with Curry and end in a shot other Warriors are defending (like Thompson on Eric Gordon above).

Isolations serve a purpose in the postseason. They not only allow the Rockets to attack one of the few weak links in the Warriors’ lengthy, suffocating defence, but they also slow the pace down and help to minimise turnovers.

Much was made of the Rockets’ stagnant, isolation-heavy style in their Game 1 loss to the Warriors. D’Antoni said the team got this far playing that style so he wouldn’t change it for Game 2.

The Rockets did make some adjustments, however. For one, they played with more energy and speed, pushing much more after turnovers and missed shots. And for as much attention as their offensive stagnation received after Game 1, it was their defence that let them down. They cleaned up many of their mistakes in Game 2.

The Rockets still face a tough challenge as they head to Oakland for Games 3 and 4 against a motivated Warriors team. But for all of the hand-wringing about the Rockets’ chances in this series after losing Game 1, they at least showed they could indeed beat the Warriors when everything is clicking.

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