When the Golden State Warriors were invulnerable, Stephen Curry's drives to the basket with 15 seconds left not only resulted in a basket but a game-sealing and-one.
When the Golden State Warriors were invulnerable, Draymond Green's rebound tap-out would have gone to a teammate, or he would simply have seized it.
When the Golden State Warriors were invulnerable, Curry's pass to Green with 2.4 seconds left would have gone to Klay Thompson, or to a more prepared Green.
When the Golden State Warriors were invulnerable, James Harden going 0-for-11 from three and Chris Paul coming up lame meant an Oakland rout. And when they were invulnerable, Kevin Durant did not look like he was straining so hard to be the team's only qualified savior.
When the Golden State Warriors were invulnerable, they closed out Game 5s rather than lose them, as they did to the Houston Rockets Thursday night, 98-94.
And when the Golden State Warriors were invulnerable, they didn't have to return home in a desperate state, suspecting at least somewhere in their cerebra that they may actually be facing a better team. A team that has turned back the clock a decade and made it the Warriors' kryptonite.
In a taut, dysrhythmic, glass-chewing battle between the two best teams in basketball, the suspicion must finally be dawning on the nation that the Warriors are the second team – or at the very least are playing the role all too well. The "we'll be all right" mantra that they have used through all their relative difficulties this year has finally given way to a frantic, unsettled, skittish demeanor that makes every offensive possession less a fait accompli and more a shrieking white-knuckler where disappointment looms with every errant pass, isolation shot or desperate appeal for a foul call that never comes.
The Warriors, in short, look right now like the team that is one card light rather than flush. They look every bit as locked up as they did after Game 4 of the 2016 Western Conference Final, when they lost successive games to Oklahoma City by 28 and then 24 points.
They look, in a weird way, like the team of the future losing to the team of the past.
Part of that may be Andre Iguodala's absence for the second consecutive game, because the Warriors have inadequately replaced his minutes rather than his defensive presence. I mean, it's a nice crutch if you want to use it – it just isn't the reason the Warriors are down 3-2.
The reason is Houston, the team whose defense has been mocked almost reflexively for years but which has gummed up what the Warriors want to do and reduced them to being the second-best isolation-based team on the floor.
Once again, Houston went only seven deep, but the Warriors, who tried to use more of their bench, still ended up needing at least 40 minutes from each of the remaining 80 percent of the Hamptons 5.
Only now the argument about them being tired makes more sense because the Rockets are making those minutes a brutal possession-by-possession grind, reducing the pace to a muddy slog and making the Warriors play a game they have been trying to render obsolete since the start of the Steve Kerr era.
But it isn't obsolete. All styles are valid when employed by the right players, and the Rockets have mastered theirs while the Warriors are struggling to find theirs.
All this said, the Warriors are still a very live underdog. Iguodala is expected back for Saturday's sixth game, while Chris Paul looks like he has found a new injury (a hamstring), and the game itself is in Oakland, which used to be more proof of the Warriors' invulnerability.
It is no longer.
So here's how the Warriors escape the fate that seems theirs – by relocating the rhythm in their offense that Houston slowly but surely has been squeezing from them, by maintaining their defensive stubbornness, and by taking back the battle for pace and movement that Houston has been demonstrably winning. They have to utilize their obvious anger in ways that work against the Rockets rather than themselves, because they are used to playing with joy rather than anger, more used to frustrating others than overcoming their own.
The Warriors are finally underdogs in more than just the Vegas line. They have to wrest control of the game's flow from a team that has taken the initiative by employing the one thing all the brainboxes in the sport have sworn is the basketball of ten years ago.
Specifically, the basketball of ten years ago.
|Game 1||Warriors 119, Rockets 106|
|Game 2||Rockets 127, Warriors 105|
|Game 3||Warriors 126, Rockets 85|
|Game 4||Rockets 95, Warriors 92|
|Game 5||Rockets 98, Warriors 94|
|Game 6||Oakland -- Saturday, May 26th at 6pm|
|Game 7||Houston -- Monday, May 28th at 6pm|