Kurtenbach The Rockets plan to stay true to their identity that’s great news for the Warriors

HOUSTON — When this series started, I predicted that the Warriors would win in five games.

Golden State’s four wins would come because the Warriors have a dynamic, efficient offense and their defense, the real difference in the series, would be able to curtail — to whatever extent you can — the one-dimensional Rockets offense.

The Rockets’ win would come because James Harden — the league’s presumptive MVP — is going to get buckets. The Rockets might run isolation set after isolation set for Harden — something the Warriors are comfortable defending — but he’s so good, you have to account for one efficient offensive game that would lead the Rockets to a win.

Harden gave the Rockets that kind of performance in Game 1, scoring 41 points on 14-of-24 shooting.

But the Rockets don’t have a win — they lost Game 1 by 13.

The natural reaction to the Rockets playing a good game — getting exactly what they needed to win from their best player — and losing by double-digits is to think about mixing things up for Game 2, which is a sink-or-swim contest.

Perhaps instead of so many Harden isolations where everyone else stands around waiting for something to happen — literally, they’re just standing there, spectators like the rest of us (only on the court) — the Rockets could run some side action. Maybe less dribbling and more passes. And what about sending two guys up to set the now perfunctory pick for Harden to get his perimeter mismatch?

Fans wondered those things after Game 1. I wondered those things after Game 1. Even the Rockets role players wondered those things after Game 1.

So what should we expect from the Rockets in Game 2 Wednesday?

More of the same stuff we saw Monday.

And that is good news for the Warriors.

The Rockets are being stubborn because — as they see it — it’s a little late to change the team’s offensive identity.

“It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, they iso! That’s all they do.’ No, it isn’t,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said Tuesday. “That’s what we do best. We scored like 60 percent of the time on it. It’s like … ‘Oh, they don’t pass. Everybody stands.’ Really? Have you watched us for 82 games?

“That’s what we do. We are who we are, and we’re pretty good at it. And we can’t get off who we are. Embrace it. Just be better at who we are and don’t worry about if somebody else solves the puzzle a different way.”

And they’re probably right. Even the Warriors agreed on Wednesday that you shouldn’t and really couldn’t change a team’s identity between games.

“They’ve been doing a lot of that all year,” Draymond Green said. “And they’re very good at it. You don’t get to the conference finals and change who you are. That doesn’t work. I think they’re going to be them.”

But is what the Rockets did in Game 1 going to work? Can it beat the Warriors in four of the next six games?

I don’t see it. I’m not sure how anyone could.

That’s how good the Warriors are: they’re making us question more than basketball identities — the question of how to beat them is almost existential.

For the last four years, there have been two posited paths to beating the Warriors. They’re hardly surefire, but they’re the best the league has right now.

The first is to play bully ball. Limit possessions, limit turnovers, and play a physical, isolation-heavy game. This is the path the Cavs took to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the 2016 NBA Finals. This is the path that the Rockets, obviously, want to take.

The problem is I don’t know if that route can work anymore. When the Cavs did late in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, they weren’t all that efficient and were able to create mismatches against an injured Curry (the Rockets, to be fair, are doing the same thing) and Festus Ezeli, who was inexplicably playing late in the fourth quarter of that game. (I still don’t get it.)

Then the Warriors acquired Durant. And a big reason why they did — other than the obvious fact that you sign Kevin Durant if you have the means — is because he can counter teams playing an isolation-heavy game against the Warriors. We’ve seen that in this postseason— Durant has gotten a lot of isolation plays himself, and he’s been hyper-efficient from the mid-range. Durant was every bit as good as Harden in Game 1, playing a relatively similar game. It was a wash.

The trick, of course, is that the Warriors have other sets and looks on offense, and that’s where they separate.

The Warriors played better defense — by a mile — than the Rockets, and had Klay Thompson knocking down open shots, so they won by 13.

The other path to theoretically beat the Warriors is to emulate them — pass the ball a bunch, play with pace, and knock down a bunch of 3-pointers with a heavy-motion, screen-copious, penetrate-and-kick offense. That’s the path the 2016 Thunder took to nearly beat the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. Remember, they were up 3-1 in that series, playing the beautiful game, whipping the ball around, getting and hitting open shots. Yes, Thompson happened in Game 6, but so much of the Thunder’s failure in that series stemmed from Russell Westbrook’s bull-headed decision to stop running the dynamic system that had helped OKC win three of the series’ first four games.

Can that work? I don’t know, but I think it’s the better route. Because even if you have Harden, to play bully ball, you’re effectively praying that Durant misses a bunch of shots.

Beyond that, playing bully ball is exhausting — even with the rest that comes with a seven-game series, it’s unfathomable to imagine one man trying to take on the Warriors all by himself possession after possession.

Harden dribbled the ball 549 times in Game 1 — that’s more than Stephen Curry, Durant, and Thompson did, combined.

And that wasn’t by accident. It wasn’t an on-the-fly decision. That was the Rockets’ gameplan. And it worked as well as anyone could have expected.

Sure enough, there were stretches where it was clear the Rockets superstar was gassed. Still, he knocked down 4-of-5 step-back 3-pointers — a shot that he made only 30 percent of the time coming into the series and one that the Warriors are willing to effectively concede. Will those shots go in Game 2 and beyond? Will the cumulative fatigue mean less burst off the dribble, less lift on the jumper, even worse defense (it was truly atrocious in Game 1)?

Going this route seems like a bad model — even if the Rockets get another great Harden performance in addition to better team defense and play from their role players, it’s hard to see that formula winning four of the next six. It’s hard to see it working more than once or twice, to be honest.

Yes, trying to match the Warriors’ style and systems is a good way to get blown out — when you fail, it’s often a spectacular failure — but I believe the more difficult road is the one you have to take to beat this team.

The Rockets, obviously. disagree.

Then again, they don’t really have a choice. You gotta dance with the one that brought you.

I just can’t see how this dance goes all that long.

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