By KRISTIE RIEKEN
HOUSTON (AP) — The Houston Rockets are so full of physical defenders that Golden State coach Steve Kerr said many look like they could play football.
And with three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt watching from a courtside seat Thursday night, this team long known for its powerful offense relied again on its defense to beat the Warriors 98-94 and take a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference finals.
“Both teams are playing their guys heavy minutes so shots will fall or not,” James Harden said. “But I think whoever can buckle down and get stops consecutively and create opportunities with their defense is going to win or have a chance at winning games.
“The last two games, we’ve done that.”
Indeed. The Rockets bounced back from an embarrassing 41-point loss in Game 3, when Golden State scored 126 points, to hold the Warriors to fewer than 100 points in two straight wins. Houston’s stingy defense helped the Rockets come out on top on a night when Harden, the MVP front-runner, was 0 for 11 on 3-pointers.
Critics of Mike D’Antoni’s teams often said they were too focused on offense and not good enough on defense. It looks like that’s changed now — against a team with four All-Stars in its starting lineup.
“Ninety-four points for a team like that, the guys are trying to find a way and they did,” D’Antoni said.
The Rockets have kept the Warriors from moving the ball the way they’re accustomed to, crowding them and forcing them into playing more isolation- style. They’ve also been relentless at throwing bodies at their shooters, and have often used bigger players to harass Stephen Curry to try and wear him down.
Houston has forced the Warriors into 34 turnovers combined and limited them to 19 total 3-pointers in the last two games.
The Warriors and Rockets were first and second in the NBA in points per game during the regular season, averaging 113.5 and 112.4, respectively. Golden State has managed just over 107 points a game in this series, and Houston has held the defending champions to 97 points in its three wins.
Curry noted that both teams have elevated their defenses in this series.
“It’s been high level,” he said. “Nothing’s easy out there on either side.”
He shook his head at the fact neither team has broken 100 points in the last two games.
“I think (if you) guessed what the final score would be between the Rockets and Warriors, and neither team getting to 100 two straight games, don’t know what the odds (would be) on that,” he said. “Defense is high right now.”
While everyone has been pitching in, the tone on defense, especially in these last two games, has been set by the aggressive play of P.J. Tucker and Trevor Ariza, and Clint Capela’s presence at the rim. Tucker knows that most people believe the way to beat the Warriors is to outscore them in a shootout. The Rockets have shown that energy and effort on the defensive end are a better formula for getting it done.
“Anybody says to beat Golden State they talk about scoring 120, 130 points,” Tucker said. “We just feel like we play defense, (lock) down and make it tough for them.”
And if the Rockets are able to do that in Game 6 on Saturday night they’ll be on the way to their first NBA Finals since winning consecutive titles in 1994-95.
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