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The record-setting Golden State Warriors pursuit of a second-straight NBA championship started off very well with a convincing 104-78 blowout of the No. 8 seed Houston Rockets in Game 1 of their first-round series Saturday afternoon at Oracle Arena. The win seemed to confirm everything analysts predicted heading into the series — that the Rockets wouldn't be able to stop the Warriors in transition, that Houston could not match Golden State's focus, and that a 73-win team just has too much for a massive disappointment that stumbled to a 41-41 season.
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Yet Warriors fans can be forgiven for feeling a little uneasy in the wake of the victory. Presumptive back-to-back MVP Stephen Curry played just three minutes in the second half after tweaking his right ankle. Curry appeard to hurt himself at first on a shot attempt near the Warriors bench with a few minutes remaining in the second quarter. He appeared to be in more serious discomfort a few plays later after a highlight-reel steal of James Harden that led to a Andre Iguodala lay-up:
Curry tried to play early in the third quarter, but he looked limited and was pulled to have his ankle retaped. He spent several tense minutes in the locker room.
The good news is that the league's most dominant player returned to the bench late in the third and was deemed ready to play if necessary. He appeared to lobby for re-entry, but the game never got close enough to force the Warriors into bringing him back.
Kerr stated after the game that Curry is currently questionable for Monday's Game 2, a precautionary diagnosis prior to seeing how he will respond to the injury on Sunday. He put the team's forthcoming decision in perspective:
"We're hoping we're going to be in the playoffs for the next couple of months. We don't want to take any chances." Kerr on Curry's ankle
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) April 16, 2016
Curry said during his press conference that he expects to play in Game 2.
Curry didn't have to return Saturday in large part because of what he and his Warriors teammates did throughout a dominant first half. Golden State opened the contest on a 20-6 run through the first eight minutes with a devastating display, getting open in transition and in the half-court against a porous Houston defense. The margin got to 60-33 by the half, the lowest total allowed by the Warriors in a first half all season.
Curry was the star, out-scoring the Rockets 16-15 by himself in the first quarter. He finished the half (and game) with 24 points on 8-of-13 shooting, including a 5-of-7 showing from three-point range.
The Rockets appeared to understand that they didn't have much chance of stopping Curry with standard defensive tactics, so tenacious point guard Patrick Beverley brought a little old-school toughness to the court early on in the first. This tangle led to technical fouls for both Beverley and Curry:
It didn't frustrate Golden State — if anything, it motivated them to play better. Analysts such as Charles Barkley have attempted to cast the Warriors as a finesse team without a ton of toughness, but they've proven time and time again these past two seasons that they have the resolve and focus to execute in these situations. For that matter, they often bring a hard edge themselves — Draymond Green flattened Beverley with a screen right after the technicals and received his own T in the fourth quarter after a dust-up with forward Donatas Motiejunas.
The biggest issue for the Warriors wasn't the physicality, but a recurrence of the turnover problems that plagued them at times towards the end of the regular season. Golden State turned it over 10 times in the third quarter (and 15 times in all) as Houston cut the margin from a high of 29 to as few as 15 late in the period. Yet Green and the Warriors reasserted control to build the lead back up to 82-60 by the buzzer. The Rockets had some moments in the fourth, but the result was never in doubt.
The Warriors may be concerned that they managed only 44 points without Curry in the second half. Yet the Rockets have much deeper offensive issues, because they scored 18 points or fewer in three quarters on their way to shooting 35.7 percent from the field, 6-of-22 from deep, and 12-of-24 from the line. The free-throw shooting was especially poor because James Harden had zero attempts, only the third time he has not taken a free throw in four seasons with the Rockets. Harden had no comment ... and then a comment:
James Harden on his free throw-less outing: "No comment...How's that possible though?"
— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) April 16, 2016
He finished with a team-high 17 points on 7-of-19 shooting.
Harden will have to (and likely will) play better in future games in this series. The deeper problem for the Rockets is that no five-man lineup appears likely to stop the Warriors even if Curry is limited. Defense has been an issue for Houston all season, and Golden State created good looks all game. A matchup that looked one-sided on paper provided little evidence to the contrary in Game 1.
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