SAN FRANCISCO — Entering Thursday evening’s game, both forward Draymond Green and head coach Steve Kerr expressed skepticism over the long-term viability of the Houston Rockets’ small-ball starting lineup.
But, in the Golden State Warriors’ 135-105 loss to the Rockets at Chase Center, the one-game results led to a convincing win for a team pushing the boundaries of a small-ball movement the Warriors helped usher forward.
By starting P.J. Tucker at center and trading 7-footer Clint Capela earlier this month, the Rockets’ starting unit features players all 6-foot-7 or shorter.
“I think there’s always going to be a place for big guys,” Kerr said before the game.
“Every game, that can kind of wear on you,” Green said earlier this week. “I’ll be interested to see how that plays out down the stretch. But they’ve been successful at it so far.”
“Yeah we don’t need to go big,” Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Our team is better this way and if we are going to dive in, then you might as well go all the way.”
With five players on the perimeter on offense, Houston made 25-of-49 shots from 3-point range and took a decisive 35-point lead in the third quarter. Golden State, meanwhile, went just 7-for-33 from beyond the arc.
And though the Warriors (12-44) played most of the game with a true center — either Marquese Chriss or Kevon Looney — they outrebounded the Rockets by only seven.
Forward Andrew Wiggins led the Warriors with 22 points on 10-for-17 shooting (2-for-4 from 3-point range), while rookie forward Eric Paschall went for 12 points on 5-for-8 shooting and seven rebounds.
For the Rockets (35-20), James Harden (29 points and 10 assists) stepped back into 3-pointers and baited the Warriors’ defenders into fouling, and Russell Westbrook (21 points, 10 assists and five rebounds) used the space provided by not having a center clogging the paint to attack the basket.
Meanwhile, the Warriors had a difficult time finding open shots against the Rockets’ switching defensive scheme. Although they scored 60 points in the paint, it was not nearly enough to overcome the 3-point discrepancy.
That math advantage is the central tenet of the Rockets’ strategy: three is worth more than two. The Rockets are willing to give up size and points in the paint if it means having one more player on the floor who can threaten from beyond the arc.
Of course, this was also the belief in the Warriors’ lineups that featured Green at center, and Stephen Curry (out, left hand surgery) and Klay Thompson (out, left knee surgery) spacing the floor, that helped establish their recent dynasty.
However, they’d only start with a small-ball lineup in moments of desperation in a postseason setting, as they famously did in Game 4 of the 2015 NBA Finals — a decision that changed the course of the series, and possibly the next half-decade of the league.
But going dramatically small for a playoff series is different than making it a standard starting lineup during the regular season. Maybe Green is right, and the Rockets won’t be able to sustain their impressive effort of the last few weeks.
On Thursday, though, it was enough to hand the Warriors a blowout loss during a rebuilding season, as the Rockets ramp up to another playoff run.
©2020 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)