In playoff series as tightly contested as this year’s second-round bout between the Rockets and Warriors, plays, games and seasons can swing on the efforts of role players. When both sides feature such singular star talent, teams are often only as good as their connective tissue. It’s on that premise that Houston has ground its way to consecutive victories to even the series at two games apiece. While James Harden and Chris Paul have been the centerpieces of an offense that seems to have found its footing, the Rockets would have little to show for it without the yeomanly contributions of their supporting cast, which has given Mike D’Antoni’s rotation much-needed flexibility. Harden and Paul will always impose certain stylistic traits upon their teams, but how their skills are complemented can vary depending on lineups, opponent or simply preference.
Simply having multiple options is a feat unto itself considering the state of the Rockets mere months ago. After losing two integral pieces on the wing and sputtering out of the gate, the Rockets’ pursuit of Golden State appeared to have hit a roadblock. Ample credit can be assigned to Harden, D’Antoni and Daryl Morey for a miraculous turnaround, but the bulk of it belongs to the players who actually filled the gaps that so desperately needed plugging. On offense, none have been more central than Eric Gordon, who has posted 23 points per game on 62 percent true shooting in his last four games against Golden State. He’s shown no hesitation to fire — and make — deep 3s over contesting defenders, and his physical drives have yielded over a point per shot attempt in the playoffs.
Clint Capela, meanwhile, offers Harden and Paul a vertical threat out of the pick-and-roll, creating a gravity that opens up kickout passes to shooters. A center who can catch the ball out of the pick and roll and, in one motion, spray it back out to the perimeter is of immense value on a team whose best players constantly face traps and double-teams off of those actions. Until this season, the Rockets didn’t have that sort of player on its roster. Now, Houston’s guards can use Capela as a pressure-release, trusting that he’ll make the right decision in short order:
In spite of his solid individual production, Capela’s impact has been largely mitigated against the Warriors by Draymond Green’s ability to take away his lobs from Harden. He hasn’t contained Curry and Durant on switches as well as he did in last season’s Conference Finals, and the Rockets have been badly outscored with him on the floor in the series. As a result, D’Antoni has turned often to playing Tucker at center with four guards – a look that has dominated the postseason and potentially turned this series (and sparingly, to Nêné, who looks more spry than most could have thought possible). Even in those small alignments, the Rockets have gained a crucial edge on the boards, and Tucker’s defensive versatility allows him to body Golden State’s bigs on the offensive glass while serving as Kevin Durant’s primary defender on the other end. He has used his quick hands expertly, swiping at the ball and making Durant uncomfortable before he gets the chance to release unblockable jumpers over the top:
When stationed away from the ball, Tucker helps stem the Warriors’ scoring efforts with aggressive, well-timed rotations:
Perhaps no player in these playoffs has made a more positive impact relative to box score numbers than Tucker, who has been a net positive in all but two games – both Houston losses – this postseason. Offensively, he has made hay in the cracks of Golden State’s defense. When his defender ignores him to devote extra help attention to Harden, Tucker sneaks behind everyone to poach easy layups or corral missed shots. The Rockets have rebounded nearly 29 percent of their own misses with Tucker on the floor in these playoffs, and the Warriors have simply been unable to adequately box the 6-foot-6 bruiser out. Despite struggling to finish around the rim, Tucker has shot nearly 43 percent from deep in the series, which only allows his teammates more room to operate. Houston generates more corner 3s and shots at the rim with Tucker on the court due to both his gravity and willingness to move the ball. He’s a decisive recipient of kick-out passes – either immediately firing from distance or keeping a sequence moving with instinctive swing passes:
(Notice Shumpert pinning in Kevon Looney to prevent a contest on Rivers’ shot.)
After missing Game 1 with an illness, Rivers has provided steady minutes in each of the last three games. He can attack closeouts when necessary and has enough defensive juice to make Curry and Klay Thompson earn their points. While he and Iman Shumpert are imperfect on both sides of the ball, simply providing passable two-way play has been a boon for a team that runs thin on reliable wings. They do just enough to balance the floor around Harden’s meticulous isolations and spare him the trouble of chasing the Warriors’ primary scorers around the floor.
In their effort to hide him from Harden’s ruthless attacks, the Warriors have had Curry hedge hard to the side of the ball screen while Andre Iguodala fights over the top of the screen. To counter, both Rivers and Shumpert have cleverly begun flipping the direction of screens for Harden to take Curry out of the play entirely:
Tucker, Rivers and Shumpert’s combined 43 percent 3-point shooting through four games may not be entirely sustainable, and the volatile Shumpert could find himself back on the fringes of the rotation by series’ end. Perhaps D’Antoni tries Danuel House again – this round or next – if Shumpert falters. It’s to his credit, however, that he and his teammates have given this much, and Houston has needed every ounce of it.