Maybe the Houston Rockets have more things to throw at the Western Conference Final to make it seem less, well, perilous.
Maybe they rest on the notion that the Toyota Center contains horrors the Golden State Warriors have yet to see, let alone comprehend or conquer. Maybe James Harden has a 42-point game in him. Or a 52-point game. Or a game in which he makes more shots than he takes.
But for the moment, the Rockets have emptied out their supply room, scared the Warriors half-dead, but still fly home down two after Thursday’s 99-98 loss in Oakland.
And ultimately, one of the reasons why is the one player everyone is sure is being relentlessly seared in the Harden convection oven –- Klay Thompson.
By number, at both ends of the floor, this has been a mighty and largely losing struggle for Thompson, who has drawn the Harden assignment the way poker players draw the two of diamonds . . . as precursor to a losing hand.
He has been principally assigned to repel Harden, and watched the Houston supernova go for 28 and 38 on successive nights. Others have had a hand in the task, but it has largely been Thompson’s duty, and it has been an unpleasant one.
But Thompson was part of the decisive pincers movement at game’s end that caused Harden to lose the ball on what could have been the game-winning shot; Stephen Curry knocked the ball free from Harden, and Thompson continued to keep it away from Harden as time expired. Nothing glamorous, like his block of Harden’s five-foot baseline drive 3:22 earlier was unspectacular.
But vital? In a series that has played much like the MVP race -– decisive, but much closer than expected -– Thompson has done just enough to take a level of peace of mind to Texas for Games 3 and 4 Saturday and Monday.
“I wouldn’t be happy talking to you right now if we were down 0-2, or even 1-1,” he said with that only-dogs-can-hear voice of his. “But up 2-0 . . .”
And with that, he smiled.
This, you see, is his series to grind out small victories in a field of seeming losses. Everyone but the insanely great gets one of these, when the matchup thrust upon one is inherently lopsided and reputations takes a dent that only the finest body shops in the land can hammer out.
So it was with the double-team that ended the game. Curry read the play and closed on Harden, and with Thompson to Harden’s left -– the direction which the MVP silver medalist clearly favors -– Harden never got to collect himself with the ball and get off a shot that, knowing his luck and touch would have tied the series.
“Got the ball off the glass and I’m thinking, just try to get an easy one,” Harden said of the final play, which he launched by getting the rebound of a missed Harrison Barnes reverse layup with nine second left. “They did a good job of having two guys on me, and when I looked and saw a red jersey, it was Dwight (Howard) so I tried to throw it back to him.”
Problem? Time was winding down, Howard was several yards outside his range, and this was a moment made for Harden, so Howard swiftly returned the ball to him.
“I’m thinking there’s five seconds on the clock, so I tried to get the ball back, and it was still two guys right there. I watched the film. It was a tough, tough play.”
“We’ll take our best player coming downhill,” head coach Kevin McHale said of Harden and his decision not to call a time out immediately. “When we got the rebound, someone fell down for them and someone was a out of bounds (Barnes) so I just let him go. I figured if nothing else, we had a four on three.”
But the three the Warriors had included their best player and one of their two best defenders. And the lesser of those in this series, Thompson, has been the one to take the brunt of the criticism –- at least what little there has been so far.
“Yeah, it’s a little bit frustrating (guarding someone in Harden’s zone),” Thompson said. “But he’s a great player, and when he’s hitting that step-back three . . . I’m trying to put my body on him, not let him get those looks, but . . .”
“But it doesn’t matter whether he gets 40 or five, as long as we win.”
It’s the right sentence for a player whose defense is being taxed to its limit and whose offense has suffered as a result (he is 12 for 33 shooting, 2 for 14 from three, has only 28 points and a minus-15 in the two games). He is paying the price demanded in the only way he can -– with gritted teeth and the knowledge that the assignment isn’t going to change. He does what can be done, and has to rely on one great play or two at critical moments to buoy his spirits.
Well, that, and knowing that the Warriors could unshackle him from this jail by finishing off the Rockets as quickly as possible. If such a thing were that easy, which thanks to Harden more than anyone else, it evidently is not.