May 15, 2018, 1:46 am
So much for home-court advantage. The Golden State Warriors beat the Houston Rockets 119-106 on Monday, taking a 1-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals and wrestling back home-court from a team that worked so hard over the previous seven months to get it.
Kevin Durant, embracing his inner alpha dog, led the way for the defending champions. He had a team-best 37 points on 14-of-27 shooting, living from mid-range in a game played by two teams that have revolutionized importance of the long ball. Durant went 9-of-18 on two-pointers outside the restricted area on a series of fadeaways, turnarounds and pull-ups over any defender Houston put in his path. It was a callback to his days with the Oklahoma City Thunder, when his team needed Durant to be exactly who he is: the best pure scorer in basketball.
— NBA (@NBA) May 15, 2018
The difference between now and then? Durant had more than enough help to beat a great team on the road – both offensively and defensively.
Klay Thompson scored 28 points, shooting 6-of-15 from three. Steph Curry had 16 points, six rebounds and eight assists, while Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala spearheaded a defensive effort that kept the Rockets’ role players in check. Kevon Looney deserves a mention, too. The Warriors came back from an early deficit once the third-year center came in the game, buoyed by his ability to hold up against James Harden and Chris Paul after switches. That tactic didn’t always work; not even close. But Looney rewarded Steve Kerr‘s years of faith in his development by making a positive impact on the game’s biggest stage, playing a team-high 25 minutes off the bench – 21 more than David West, the only other reserve big man Golden State played after starting the famed Hamptons 5.
Harden was dominant in defeat, pouring in 41 points on 14-of-24 from the field and 5-of-9 from 3-point range. He got the Rockets a seven-point lead in the opening moments by scoring their first nine points on two step-back triples and an and-1 layup, a harbinger of things to come throughout the game’s remainder. Unfortunately, the outsized offensive burden Harden carried affected his play on the other end of the floor – a development the Warriors fostered by going at him from the opening tip. Paul finished with 23 points but never quite got going, scoring six of those points in glorified garbage time as the visitors nursed a lead late.
Houston would have been able to overcome Harden’s inattentive, lackadaisical defensive performance if its role players had contributed on the other end. Instead, P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute combined for one point on 0-of-9 shooting overall, including 0-of-4 from beyond the arc. The Warriors’ length played a part in their struggles, of course. Mbah a Moute attacked well-timed, long-armed close-outs with several ambitious drives, but always came up empty, thwarted by Golden State’s swarming help defense. Any space Tucker thought he had to launch after a kick-out from his star teammates was quickly closed.
Curry deserves credit for his play on that end, too – especially in comparison to Harden. Routinely targeted by Houston in pick-and-roll play, especially to open the third quarter, no matter who he was guarding, Curry mostly held his own, at least forcing Harden and Paul into a rash of dribble moves or difficult jumpers. After Thompson drained another 3-pointer midway through the third quarter, the two-time MVP, again switched onto Harden, deflected a pass and saved the loose ball to Iguodala, who streaked downcourt for a dunk, putting Golden State up 78-70 – its biggest lead of the game to that point.
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) May 15, 2018
Ignore the naysayers, by the way. Yes, the Warriors went into Toyota Center and won by double-digits in a game Harden was something close to unstoppable. No, the Rockets didn’t have an answer for Durant, and yes, their role players were marginalized by Golden State’s activity, size and attention to detail. Clint Capela, who was awesome defensively and shot 6-of-7 from the field, played just 30 minutes, perhaps an indication of Mike D’Antoni‘s confidence in his ability to stay on the floor.
Still, this was an extremely competitive game. Houston led early, and the score was tied 56-56 at half. The Warriors’ usual third-quarter excellence didn’t even put the Rockets away; a late run had them trailing by just seven points entering the final stanza. Golden State only seemed safe for good when Thompson hit his sixth and final triple with 3:55 remaining, extending his team’s lead to 106-96. Even that play almost never occurred, though; the Warriors should have been called for a backcourt violation before they secured the ball in the backcourt.
Hold up… pic.twitter.com/K9LvONjonu
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 15, 2018
Game 1 told us everything we thought we knew about this series. Golden State, by virtue of Durant’s singular offensive brilliance and unparalleled two-way versatility, is the best team in basketball, but Houston has a puncher’s chance. With fewer defensive miscues and more made jumpers, the Rockets can beat the Warriors. Good thing, too, because they desperately need a win before the Conference Finals shift back to Oakland.
We’ll find out if they get it on Wednesday night.