The Golden State Warriors kicked off the 2017-18 NBA season with a huge celebration of their 2017 NBA championship, and eager to start their pursuit of a third title in four years. Come the end of opening night, though, it’d be the Houston Rockets celebrating, thanks to the slimmest of margins and the length of Kevin Durant’s fingertips:
With 10 seconds left in the fourth quarter of a wild season opener, the Warriors inbounded from half-court trailing the Rockets by one point. Golden State guard Shaun Livingston dribbled into the frontcourt and got the ball to star Stephen Curry, who peeled away from the defense of Houston wing Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and hoisted a 3-pointer. His potential game-winner went long off the back rim, but Livingston was able to win the loose ball and tap it over to Durant, who corralled it, avoided a swiping closeout from Houston star James Harden, rose up, fired and splashed down a baseline jumper.
And there you had it: a buzzer-beating game-winner by the reigning NBA Finals Most Valuable Player, handing Golden State a 123-122 victory. What a thrilling way to end opening night, right?
The clock hit all zeroes and the red light flashed on with the ball still in Durant’s hand, meaning the shot didn’t count, allowing the Rockets to escape Oracle Arena with a 122-121 victory.
Houston earned every ounce of this one, withstanding a monster start that saw the defending champs come out blazing to the tune of 71 first-half points, including 20 in just under 14 minutes of floor time from new addition Nick Young.
The Warriors led by as many as 17 points in the first half and by double figures for most of the third, and looked to be well on their way to kicking off the season with a victory. But just before the end of the third quarter, reigning Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green pulled up lame after taking contact on a drive to the basket:
here is how draymond injured his knee pic.twitter.com/6pAf5pHknx
— jack maloney (@jackmaloneycbs) October 18, 2017
Green had been brilliant to that point, putting up nine points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds in 28 minutes of work. But after he headed back to the locker room, the Warriors’ medical staff ruled him out for the remainder of the game with a left knee strain, removing the linchpin of Golden State’s defensive attack.
Combine the absence of Green (and veteran defensive ace Andre Iguodala) with a generally laissez-faire approach to the proceedings — before the start of the fourth quarter, Warriors coach Steve Kerr told TNT’s David Aldridge that his team wasn’t executing especially well, and was just getting by on shot-making and talent — and it seemed like the champs had left the door open for Houston to work its way back into the game. And that’s exactly what happened midway through the fourth.
— NBA (@NBA) October 18, 2017
With Green out of the mix, the Rockets took the fight right to the Dubs. New star point guard Chris Paul canned a midrange jumper, then stole the ball from former teammate David West and fed Mbah a Moute for a 3. Mbah a Moute, not typically known for his work off the dribble, drove on West on consecutive trips for layups that cut the deficit to five. Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon — who looked incredibly explosive and overall great on Tuesday — bowling-balled his way to the rim for a layup, and Golden State’s lead was down to three. All of a sudden, things seemed to feel a little bit tight inside Oracle Arena.
The Warriors surged back, with Curry scoring seven straight Golden State points to push the lead back to seven with just over four minutes remaining. But the Rockets just wouldn’t be denied. Gordon blew through the defense for an and-one layup. Harden knifed into the lane, drew ill-advised help off the strong-side corner from Warriors big man Kevon Looney (in the game because Draymond couldn’t be), and fed P.J. Tucker for a 3. And Gordon and Anderson hustled to win loose balls, resulting in a kick back to a wide-open Trevor Ariza at the 3-point arc for another 3 that got Houston within one.
Give Houston this much, man: they hustled their asses off and fought in that fourth quarter. pic.twitter.com/odgjo1U142
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) October 18, 2017
After a beautiful move by Curry to shake Ariza and a touch pass from Durant to Patrick McCaw for a jumper in the corner put Golden State back up by three …
Steph putting Trevor Ariza in the mixx, baseline view with the shot pic.twitter.com/ljawdeF0f7
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) October 18, 2017
… Harden worked a switch in the high pick-and-roll, shedding Klay Thompson and drawing Curry, whom he blew past on a left-handed run to the rim for a layup without any shot-blocking in the middle.
The lack of size on the interior came back to bite Golden State on the next trip, too, as the Warriors couldn’t finish off a defensive possession after a missed runner by Harden or a missed 3 by Gordon, with bull-in-a-china-shop Tucker pushing his way into rebounding position and forcing a foul on Livingston that put the veteran wing defender on the foul line with 44 seconds remaining. Tucker hit them both, providing what would wind up being the margin of victory when KD’s game-winner came just a tick too late.
The Rockets capitalized on Golden State miscues, scoring seven points off four turnovers in the final frame. They took advantage of the Warriors’ defensive weakness with Green out of the game, shooting 56 percent from the field in the fourth, with the bulk of the damage coming right at the front of the rim.
Paul (four points on 2-for-9 shooting, 11 assists, eight rebounds, two steals, one block in 33 minutes) sat for the final 4:47 of the fourth quarter, due in part to a lingering knee injury that head coach Mike D’Antoni said after the game had him playing on “one leg.” But the Rockets’ other offseason additions — Tucker and Mbah a Moute — paid immediate dividends, knocking down shots and digging in defensively to give Houston the kind of rangy stoppers capable of walling off Curry in the pick-and-roll and recovering behind the play. Gordon (24 points on 9-for-16 shooting off the bench) and Harden (27 points, 10 assists, six rebounds) were sensational off the bounce, giving the Warriors everything they could handle.
The Warriors probably won’t sweat their 0-1 mark too much. After having to fly to China and back as part of their preseason slate, Kerr suggested his team might not yet be in full regular-season condition, and besides, the Warriors got slapped around by 29 on opening night last year, and things still turned out pretty OK. Golden State shot 54 percent from the field, 53 percent from 3-point range and 91 percent from the foul line as a team, with 34 assists on 43 made field goals; there’s plenty to build on, here.
The big question, though, is whether the strain that kept Green out for the fourth quarter is going to keep him out for longer than that. Just how serious things looked after the game seems to be a matter of some debate:
Draymond Green got postgame treatment on his left knee, but he's not limping bad and doesn't have any type of brace on it.
— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) October 18, 2017
Draymond is really limping and doesn't want to talk tonight. The latter is how you know something is wrong.
— Dieter Kurtenbach (@dkurtenbach) October 18, 2017
Draymond Green to ESPN: “I’ll be good. I’m fine.”
— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) October 18, 2017
Draymond Green said he felt like his knee would be fine. But he wasn’t as certain as usual. “I hope it’s not a big deal.”
— Marcus Thompson (@ThompsonScribe) October 18, 2017
On one hand, no team is better positioned to deal with an injury to an All-Star performer than Golden State is. On the other, Green’s contributions as a defensive centerpiece and primary frontcourt playmaker are impossible to replace. There might not be many teams capable of taking full advantage of the vulnerabilities his absence creates for the Warriors, but the Rockets proved Tuesday night they could, kicking their season off in impressive fashion and pooping Golden State’s big championship party.
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