OAKLAND — With one second to go in overtime at Oracle Arena on Thursday night, Houston Rockets guard James Harden hoisted up his 23rd three-point attempt of the night with Draymond Green and Klay Thompson completely draped over him.
As Harden hit the deck, his shot fell through the net, giving his Rockets a one-point advantage, and eventually a 135-134 stunner over the Golden State Warriors, who at one point had led by as many as 20 points.
The loss, while highlighting Harden’s genius as the reigning league MVP, also put a spotlight on Golden State’s inability to close what should have been a much-needed blowout win due to poor shot selection and overall execution down the stretch.
“James [Harden] would have never made that shot if we played the way we were supposed to,” Thompson said after the game. “I think we kind of played into their hands.”
On Wednesday afternoon, head coach Steve Kerr said that the key to containing Harden — and the rest of the Rockets — resided in defensive discipline and keeping him off of the free throw line.
For the first half of Thursday’s game, the Warriors executed that plan to perfection, holding Harden to 4-of-13 shooting for 15 points and only sending him to the free throw line five times.
“I thought we did a really good job keeping him off of the line [in the first half],” Kerr said after the game.
Talking a 17-point lead into the break, the Warriors appeared to be finding their rhythm, something that had been missing over the last two weeks.
To open the second half, Golden State built their lead to a 20 after Stephen Curry knocked down a free throw after being fouled on and and-one 16-foot jump shot.
Kevon Looney would also contribute to Warriors dominance up to that point, scoring all 12 of his points in the first half and helping settle the Warriors defensively with his work on Rockets center Clint Calepla.
“Kevon is one of our key guys. He was in the midst of a great game,” Kerr said. “He got two quick fouls in the third quarter … I wasn’t thrilled on the second one.”
Slipping to the basket, Looney was called for an illegal screen, giving him his fourth foul with 10:21 to play in the third quarter.
With Looney on the bench, the Rockets began to pull themselves back into the game, scoring 39 points in the third period, led by Harden, who scored 13 of his 44 points on 4-of-8 shooting, including 3-for-6 beyond the arc.
Heading into the fourth quarter up by six, Golden State would trade baskets with Houston, but the Rockets, led by Harden, would will themselves to close the game to a single point with 3:58 to play.
With and and-one layup and a fadeaway 13-footer from Kevin Durant, Golden State put themselves ahead by six with less than a minute-and-a-half to play.
But instead of playing the possession game and running the shot clock down, the Warriors decided to go for the kill shot in the final moments of the fourth quarter, leaving the door wide open for Harden and Co.
“The one I took in transition [with 53 seconds left], I was wide open,” Curry said. “I could have waited, but if I make that, it’s game over so I was going for the dagger … If I make it, it’s a different conversation.
Rather than Curry ending the game, the missed shot allowed Harden to take the ball to the other end and hit a game-tying triple, sending the game to overtime.
In the extra period, Golden State and Houston traded baskets once more, resulting in three ties and five lead changes.
Up by two after an 18-foot jump shot from Curry — after Durant “saved” a ball while three feet out of bounds — Harden had the ball in his hands for one final possession.
Knocking down the game-winning triple, Harden — who finished 13-of-32 from the floor — gave the Rockets a one-point lead with one second to play.
“He just did what he does,” Kerr said. “He’s a master of the isolation and the step-back three … He made an impossible shot at the end.”
On the ensuing inbounds play, Durant was forced into a nearly impossible 31-footer on the left wing, which clanked off of the left side of the rim.
Before the pass to Durant from Andre Iguodala, who inbounded the ball, Thompson looked to be open near the right baseline.
“Yeah [I felt like I was open] but that’s a tough pass to make.” Thompson said. “With nine bodies in front of you, like I said, that’s a tough play to make.”
As the Rockets mobbed Harden for his heroics, the Warriors walked off of the court and into the locker room knowing that they had just squandered the opportunity to secure a win at home.
“When you have a lead like that, you don’t lose at home,” Curry said. “A little laziness with that lead but again, when you have a lead like that, it’s a tough way to go out.”