Monte Poole

Golden State, do we have a problem? Another loss to Rockets awakens Warriors

Golden State, do we have a problem? Another loss to Rockets awakens Warriors

In saying goodbye to their impressive road win streak and a chance to make franchise history, the Warriors also experienced an awakening that should linger somewhere in their minds for months to come.

The new and improved Houston Rockets are a serious threat to the defending champs having a parade in downtown Oakland for the second consecutive June.

That threat likely can’t be realized, however, unless the Warriors put the worst of themselves on full display, as they did Saturday night at Toyota Center in a 116-108 loss to the Rockets.

“In the first quarter, every time we made our push, we gave up easy baskets,” Draymond Green told reporters in Houston. “In the second quarter, we put them on the line the entire quarter, which slowed down our pace and let them control the tempo of the game. In the third quarter, we fought back to kind of get there but not get over the hump. And then we finally did, but we just didn’t have the right amount of focus it takes to win a game like that.”

Indeed, the Warriors were guilty of questionable shot selection at various points. They were largely allergic to rebounding, taking a 46-33 drubbing in that category. And far too often they were impatient and therefore utterly careless with their passing, resulting in 19 turnovers that led directly to 23 Houston points.

“It seemed like we kept making one silly play after another,” coach Steve Kerr said.

Sounds familiar, eh? The Warriors know their greatest weaknesses and hear about them ad nauseam from the coaching staff, yet still struggle to consistently address them.

Stephen Curry, who committed a team-worst six turnovers, lamented two possessions in particular. On one, he missed Kevin Durant “butt-naked at the top of the key,” and on another he had Durant open for a dunk but flipped it to Klay Thompson for a 3-pointer that missed.

“I made two of the worst plays of the season on those two possessions,” Curry conceded. “It’s kind of one of those nights when I personally didn’t have the right vision on the floor I’ve got to take responsibility for that.”

This is why the Warriors deserved to lose this game, which gave the Rockets a 2-1 victory in the season series and the homecourt tiebreaker should the two teams finish with identical records.

The Warriors took a 122-121 loss to Houston at Oracle Arena on opening night, then went to Houston on Jan. 4 and claimed a 124-114 victory.

This is enough to prove the Rockets are capable of beating the Warriors. We also note that in the other loss, Warriors’ turnovers gifted 21 points to Houston.

“We know the recipe against this team,” Curry said. “They’re going to shoot a lot of 3s. They’re going to make some tough shots. But if you turn the ball over and if you foul, which we did both in the first half, then that plays right into their hands. It’s just a lack of focus on the game plan.”

That lack of focus is something that has nagged the Warriors numerous times over the course of the season.

Here’s Houston’s problem: The postseason Warriors tend to be a bit sharper than the regular season Warriors.

And the Rockets, well, remain a postseason mystery. Chris Paul, who was so magnificent Saturday night, has an inglorious postseason history, complete with multiple collapses. MVP candidate James Harden also has dubious postseason resume, with epic pratfalls against the Warriors and the Spurs.

So the events of Saturday night, and the three games in the regular season, serve as reminders that if the Warriors play smart and tough and are fully engaged, they’re still the better team. Despite the chance to set a franchise record with a 15th consecutive road victory, the Warriors were less than fully engaged.

There’s a better than even chance of them being fully engaged in the postseason, should these teams meet again.

“We always talk about hitting singles,” Kerr said. “Well, we were trying to hit home runs all night, and you can’t do that against these guys.

“On the bright side, we know we can play a lot better. And we will.”

Gameday: Warriors won't have key defender against Rockets

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USATSI

Gameday: Warriors won't have key defender against Rockets

The Warriors will be chasing franchise history at Toyota Center in Houston on Saturday, when they face the Rockets in a battle of the NBA’s highest-scoring teams.

Pregame coverage on NBC Sports Bay Area begins at 4:30, with postgame coverage immediately following the conclusion of the national telecast.

The defending champions have won their last 14 road games, tying the franchise record set in 73-win season of 2015-16. The Warriors (37-9) are two wins away from tying the NBA record of 16 consecutive road wins set by the Lakers in 1971-72.

A victory also would give the Warriors a perfect record (5-0) in their most difficult road trip of the season.

The Rockets (31-12) spent the first two months of the season atop the Western Conference and are expected to provide the greatest threat to the Warriors making a fourth consecutive appearance in the NBA Finals.

BETTING LINE:
Warriors by 3.5

MATCHUP TO WATCH:
Klay Thompson vs. James Harden: One week after Thompson faced one foe from his childhood foes in Southern California, Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan, here comes another in Harden. That Harden is playing on a recovering hamstring and will be on a minutes restriction could work in favor of Thompson and the Warriors. Thompson has been playing well; he’s having his best season. He’ll be a load for Harden or any defender, especially with starting wing Trevor Ariza out serving a suspension.

INJURY REPORT:
Warriors: F Andre Iguodala (L calf contusion) was ruled out after shootaround. F Jordan Bell (L ankle inflammation) is listed as out. C Damian Jones is on assignment with the G-League Santa Cruz Warriors.

Rockets: F Trevor Ariza (suspension), F/G Gerald Green (suspension), F/C Chinanu Onuaku (sinus surgery) and PF Zhou Qi (R elbow suergery) are listed as out.

LAST 10:
Warriors: 9-1. Rockets: 6-4.

GAME OFFICIALS:
Derrick Stafford (crew chief), Derrick Collins, Kevin Scott

SERIES HISTORY:
The teams split the first two of three games scheduled this season, each winning on the other’s court. The Rockets came back for a 122-121 victory on Oct. 17 at Oracle Arena and the Warriors taking a 124-114 decision on Jan. 4 at Toyota Center. The Warriors won three of four meetings last season and 12 of the last 14 overall in the regular season. They have won eight of the last nine in Houston.

THREE THINGS TO WATCH:
EYES ON THE ARC: Whereas the Warriors routinely deploy the 3-point shot, the Rockets live by it, firing league-leading 43.5 triples per game. The Warriors are better at it, though, shooting a league-leading 38.9 percent to Houston’s 36.3. The teams have combined to shoot 151 3-pointers in their two meetings this season. The Warriors are 10th in the league at defending the 3, while the Rockets at 22nd.

THE BENCHES: The Rockets have the No. 2 (by net rating) bench in the league, behind reigning Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon, who leads the league in 3-point attempts (9.7 per game), and rugged forward PJ Tucker, a defensive specialist. The Warriors counter with the No. 1 bench, anchored by Andre Iguodala and David West. The benches rank 1-2 in effective field-goal percentage, with the Warriors on top.

THE LOONEY FACTOR: The absence of exciting rookie power forward Jordan Bell means possible minutes for JaVale McGee and certainly an additional load for Kevon Looney. He has played well enough that even if he doesn’t start, he’s likely to play more minutes than usual starter Zaza Pachulia -- as was the case when the teams met on Jan. 4.

Steve Kerr details what Jordan Bell's injury means for Kevon Looney

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AP

Steve Kerr details what Jordan Bell's injury means for Kevon Looney

For the first three months of this season, the Warriors carried six players capable of playing at center or, as they refer to it, “big.” It seemed excessive for a team that likes to use small lineups.

But with one of the six, Jordan Bell, spraining his left ankle Wednesday night in Chicago, that depth is now an asset.

Bell will be reevaluated in two weeks. But with the sprain severe enough to cause inflammation, it’s realistic to consider he may be out until after the Feb. 15-21 All-Star break.

“There’s no structural damage is the main thing,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters Friday after practice in Chicago. “He’s young guy who heals quickly so, hopefully, this is best-case scenario.”

[WARRIORS OUTSIDERS PODCAST: Assistant GM Kirk Lacob says the Warriors are 'Kevon believers']

What does this mean for the Warriors?

It means, first and foremost, more floor time for Kevon Looney.

The Warriors are down to Looney and four other “bigs”: Draymond Green, Zaza Pachulia, David West and JaVale McGee. With McGee still likely trade bait -- the deadline is Feb. 8 -- it’s possible Damian Jones may return from G-League Santa Cruz.

With Pachulia the usual starter and West generally slotted to open the second and fourth quarters, Looney, Green and McGee, in that order, will be most impacted by Bell’s absence.

“It thrusts Kevon into that role full-time until JB gets back,” Kerr said. “They’ve sort of gone back and forth all year. I’m really happy with both of them. But they’ve been in and out of the lineup.

“This will mean that Kevon will see consistent minutes over the next couple weeks.”

Looney, who entered the game Wednesday when Bell was hurt 24 seconds after tipoff, played a career-high 30 minute. Though his individual numbers didn’t sparkle -- 2 points, four rebounds, one assist -- he was, as usual, subtly effective. He finished plus-33.

Because he’s fundamentally sound and rarely makes mistakes, Looney’s playing time has increased of late. Averaging less than 10 minutes a game for most of the season, he has averaged 21.5 over the last four games. His minutes, still based largely on matchups, should fall somewhere between 10 and 20 per game.

Looney has been particularly adept at executing the defensive switches that is the basis of the Warriors defense. Though not a superior athlete, certainly not at the level of Bell, Looney is smart and clever, with a knack for anticipation.

“We believe in him,” Kerr said. “He’s a really good fit for what we try to do defensively. He’s a good passer. He keeps things simple. He’s just got to keep playing.”

Green’s minutes at the 5 have been curtailed due to such factors as him missing seven games, Bell’s arrival and West’s effectiveness. Of the top eight lineups used by the Warriors, Green is the big in only one of them, the so-called Death Lineup: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Green.

That unit has, according to NBA.com stats, played a total of 61 minutes and is the team’s third-most effective. Though the coaching staff is mindful of the physical demands placed on Green at the 5, his minutes there could temporarily rise.

McGee’s situation is less certain. Though he filled an important role last season as a “vertical spacer,” he was essentially replaced this season by Bell. On 13 occasions, McGee has either been a DNP-CD or inactive. He played fewer minutes over the past month than Looney has in the past week.

Bell’s injury increases McGee’s value to the Warriors, but only slightly. He’s the only legitimate 7-foot “big” on the roster and can be useful against some of the more traditional centers.

When the Warriors internally ask themselves what can McGee do that Jones can’t, there isn’t much there.

Bell will be missed because he’s the most athletic “big” on the roster and the best option against athletic or non-traditional centers. He might have been in the starting lineup Saturday in Houston to counter frisky Rockets center Clint Capela.

Bell, however, played a total of six minutes against the Rockets on Jan. 4. Pachulia played 14. West played 12. Looney played 15 and his plus-13 was tops among the team’s primary big men.

It’s no lock Looney will start Saturday, but expect to see plenty of him then and beyond.