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RAGE AGAINST THE DYING OF THE LIGHT: How Houston Can Make History By Coming Back From 0-3

There have been 116 instances where a team fell down 0-3 in a best-of-seven NBA Playoff series. Only three of those teams down came back to force a Game 7. In all three cases, the team lost the decisive seventh game. A full comeback has just never happened in the NBA Playoffs. This is when television producers drop the 2004 Red Sox – Yankees graphic that raises the collective blood pressure in New England and the Tri-State area, but for totally different reasons. Because no NBA team has ever done it, similar to a No. 16 seed upsetting a No. 1 in the NCAA Tournament, we discount those underdogs and any team in a 0-3 hole as having already forfeited the series.

But this Houston team could be different. It’s impossible to calculate the actual odds of the Rockets shocking everyone and climbing out of their current 0-3 hole against the Warriors, and while we don’t actually think it will happen, we can offer a primer — or a list, if you wanna get all Bleacher Report about it — on how they might. At some point, an NBA team will come back from an 0-3 series grave, but it remains to be seen if either the 2014-15 Hawks or Rockets will be the team to do it. Here’s how Houston might.

Nothing else matters but Monday night’s Game 4

“Do not go gentle into that good night…”

 

This is the “one game at a time” trope players have been echoing across locker rooms since time immemorial. If Houston doesn’t win tonight, the rest of this piece is useless. They have to worry about escaping their home court with a split. Looking at the less-likely event they go into Oracle Arena two more times to snatch a win against a team who lost only two home games all season, isn’t likely to inspire much faith or confidence. But if they can get a win tonight, that’s when they can focus on Game 5 in Oakland.

While it’s true Houston came back from a 1-3 deficit against a superior Clippers team, this Warriors group has been riding destiny’s bucking bronco since they finished with a franchise-record 67 wins this season. They’ve got perhaps the best scoring back-court in the NBA, and it’s not like anyone’s taking plays off on defense either. The Warriors were the best team in the regular season and after a brief hiccup against Memphis, they’re the best team in the 2015 Playoffs so far. Coming back against them will be the greatest upset in NBA history.

Double-team Steph as much as possible

“Old age should burn and rave at close of day…”

 

He’s the MVP for a reason. The Rockets had some luck with this strategy towards the end of Game 2, but the problem with running two guys at Steph stems from Golden State’s overall excellence. Curry’s got an All-Defensive Second team player to partner with in the backcourt; a guy who also scored 37 points in a period this season, an NBA record.

Draymond Green is a max player this summer, a bruising 6’7 (though closer to 6’6 without sneakers) forward, who can play center when they go small, and abuses front-court players with end-to-end runs after rebounds that make you want to call up his personal trainer to learn his secret. That’s a very roundabout way of saying that doubling Steph might still lead to a loss, and the rest of the Dubs might take that opening and stomp on Houston’s throat, which is already precariously close to collapsing as is. By taking the ball out of his hands, at least Curry won’t be doing stuff like his Game 3 third-quarter f*ck you, I’m the MVP fun fest.

The lesser of two evils is forcing other Dubs — like Harrison Barnes, who struggled shooting the ball in Game 3’s blowout — to beat you. Steph is simply too cold-blooded right now to trust him to get even a glance at the iron once he crosses half-court. And even that’s not really accurate this playoff season. But if Houston is to have any chance of taking four in a row from the Dubs, even though the Warriors haven’t lost three consecutive games since Mark Jackson was patrolling the sidelines, they have to mollify an MVP who demands a double team any time a Warriors big comes up to set a screen beyond the three-point line.

James Harden initiates the offense on almost every offensive possession

“Though wise men at their end know dark is right…”

 

This ties into tonight’s performance, but for as good as Klay Thompson is, Harden has just been a bit better in two of the three games this series. The runner-up to MVP is a sight to behold when he doesn’t become distracted by the way refs are calling his drives to the cup this series. He’s not drawing nearly as many free throws in three games vs. Golden State (he’s actually averaging more in the postseason than the regular season: 10.2 vs. 10.4), and in this series he’s only getting to the stripe nine times a game.

He has to keep attacking while also looking for teammates. When he gets past Klay on the high screen, rather than hesitate if he has an open jumper, he needs to drive north-to-south right away. Look for the rotating Warriors big man — Dray or Andrew Bogut — to leave Dwight Howard (or Josh Smith) open along the back line when they step up. Harden has to be just as good or better than he was in Games 1 and 2 if Houston has any chance tonight. Part of that will be how he finishes the play once he’s broken through the perimeter D. But he has to break through it, or Houston is cooked.

Josh Smith, Jason Terry, Corey Brewer, or Trevor Ariza need to play like an All-Star

“Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight…”

Ariza has played well, even with three straight defeats. But Smoove, Terry and Brewer have been either ineffective, inactive, or haven’t taken over brief snippets of play like Houston needs when Dwight and Harden are getting a breather. Brewer usually brings some chaotic energy off the bench and he was the only Rocket who looked properly scared of going down 0-3 in Game 3. Terry is old, and it’s late in the season after he played a lot more for this dinged up Rockets team than he, Kevin McHale or Daryl Morey foresaw when he joined the team in the summer after not sniffing the court much in Brooklyn last year.

But those guys HAVE to get it going. They’re imperative for a Rockets attack that’s already way to reliant on Harden to get the ball moving and the defense bending. The Dubs can stack their defense to slow Harden down, he’s too good to stop entirely, but if he’s not buttressed with support from the bench or a couple of role players, all his heroics will be for naught.

Smoove we’ve discussed, and he really acts as the hinge for any sort of door to a comeback to crack open if they get a win at home tonight. Josh can get hot from deep, but opponents almost bait him into it, and Steve Kerr has likely instructed his group to let Smith pull the trigger beyond the arc with a placid attempt to obstruct. As long as he’s not pump-faking his way into the paint and tossing those big-to-big lobs that destroyed Dallas in the first round, Kerr will live with the occasional burst of three-point effectiveness from the often languid lefty.

***

These are four things the Rockets could do, and it still might not be enough to come all the way back. Right now, everyone on on the Rockets is focused on tonight’s game tipping off in about an hour. If they can get one home win under their belt, then they can focus on Game 5 back in Oakland. If they shock the Dubs on their home floor, then they can go back home and the energy of the series will have shifted their way, like it did for them during their Game 6 comeback in the fourth against the Clippers.

The Rockets aren’t eliminated just yet, but they should remember Dylan Thomas’ oft-repeated line when staring into the void of playoff death. For Thomas it was an empty tumbler of bourbon, for the Rockets it’s elimination on their home floor and a wasted upset win over the Clippers in the Conference Semifinals. The “distance on the look of death” — as Emily Dickinson wrote — is on the horizon for this Rockets team, and the shadows of free agency and another unknown offseason without a Larry O’Brien trophy will definitely be holding their breath in Game 4 tonight.

“Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

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