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For the first time in the Steve Kerr era, the Golden State Warriors opened up a playoff series without home-court advantage. It didn’t take them long to change that.
Kevin Durant torched the Houston Rockets from inside, Klay Thompson rained down fire from outside, Draymond Green took over the game on the defensive end late, and the Warriors put the hammer down on the No. 1-seeded Houston Rockets at Toyota Center on Monday night, taking an impressive 119-106 win in Game 1 of the 2018 Western Conference finals. Game 2 tips off in Texas at 9 p.m. ET on Wednesday.
The Rockets owned the NBA’s best record during the regular season, earning the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs with their 65 wins. They pushed for six months just so they’d have the right to start and finish a potential (and hotly anticipated) conference finals against the defending NBA champs in their own gym. Golden State needed all of 48 minutes to render that moot, shooting 52.5 percent from the field as a team and riding hot nights from two of their four All-Stars to wrest away home-court advantage in the best-of-seven set.
Durant scored a team-high 37 points on 14-for-27 shooting in 40 minutes of floor time, working his way into one-on-one after one-on-one and cooking from midrange against any defender Mike D’Antoni could throw at him:
In addition to strong defensive work on Chris Paul, who followed up his tremendous Game 5 showing against the Jazz with a much more subdued outing on Monday, Thompson did his damage from a bit further out. The All-Star shooting guard went 6-for-15 from 3-point range in Game 1, scoring 16 of his 28 points after halftime, when the Warriors turned a tie game into one of their now-customary double-digit victories with 62 post-intermission points to reach escape velocity:
After a quiet end to the conference semifinals against Utah, James Harden roared in Game 1. The presumptive 2017-18 NBA Most Valuable Player gave his team everything he could on Monday, scoring a game-high 41 points on 14-for-24 shooting, including a 5-for-9 mark from 3-point range, to go with seven assists and four rebounds:
But Golden State ensured that Harden had to work overtime for every look he got in Houston’s isolation scheme. Many of them came around and over the condor-like wingspan of Durant, who opened the game as the primary defender on his former Oklahoma City Thunder buddy and haunted him throughout.
Despite Harden’s excellent work, and sound enough stat lines from fellow creators Paul (23 points, 11 rebounds, only three assists) and Eric Gordon (15 points on 6-for-13 shooting, 3-for-7 from deep), the Rockets just didn’t have enough firepower to match baskets with the defending NBA champions down the stretch, going 10-for-24 from the field and 2-for-11 from 3-point land in the fourth quarter as the Warriors pulled away.
Kerr decided to go all-in early, starting the game with the so-called “Hamptons Five” lineup — Draymond Green at center, Durant at power forward, Andre Iguodala at small forward, Thompson and Stephen Curry in the backcourt — in an attempt to put Golden State’s best foot forward. But the lineup that blew the doors off the New Orleans Pelicans last round got off to an inauspicious start, blowing a switch on its first defensive play to leave Harden wiiiiiiiiiide open from beyond the arc, allowing the Rockets to get on the board quickly:
It was a dream start for Houston: Harden scoring a pair of quick buckets, Clint Capela spiking a Durant layup, and Draymond picking up a technical foul just 67 seconds into the series for shoving Harden after a Rockets basket.
After a 12-4 Rockets start, though, the Warriors began to settle in. Curry, looking spry off the bounce as he continues to work his way back into form after missing five weeks with a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee, broke down the Houston defense to get into the paint and kick out for a Thompson 3 in the left corner. Then, he shook his man for a quick feed from Green and drilled a barely-in-his-hands-before-it-was-up 3 to get the Warriors back within a basket.
The Warriors’ defense picked up, too, thanks in part to the insertion of reserve center Kevon Looney. The third-year man out of UCLA proved his postseason bona fides by doing yeoman’s work against Anthony Davis in the conference semifinals, and despite the Rockets’ insistence on hunting him damn near every chance they got, he did his best to stay afloat against Harden and Paul in deep water. Houston began to bog down a bit while working its trademark isolation game, picking up a pair of 24-second violations in the game’s opening minutes as Golden State started working back into things.
Even so, thanks to a quick 8-0 run fueled by pushing off a couple of Golden State misses, the Rockets held a lead when Harden hit the bench for his first breather of the game with 3:17 to go. A quick flurry by Durant and Nick Young (nine points, 3-for-5 from 3 in 15 minutes off the bench) turned the tide, though, as the Warriors would exit the first quarter down just one at 30-29. They’d take the lead early in the third, as a second unit led by veterans David West and Shaun Livingston went to work against a shaky Houston defensive unit; the Rockets got outscored by six points during Harden’s rest, before he came back with 8:10 to go in the half.
Durant checked back in at that point, too, and resumed roasting every defender the Rockets could throw at him. He shot over the top of the smaller Paul in the post and worked around the longer P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, pouring in buckets from midrange. The Warriors began to take control, taking a 49-42 lead on a Curry layup with 4 1/2 to play in the opening half.
The Rockets would close with a flurry of their own, though, as Harden’s iso-hunting took hold. He blew past Looney for one layup, then fought his way past Iguodala for a pair of free throws. He pushed the pace off a missed 3 by Young to set Capela up for an alley-oop, then drilled a step-back 3 and a pair of quick dunks, with the latter coming when he leaked out after a missed Durant layup for a cherry-pick flush.
Harden scored 11 points in the final four minutes of the quarter, capping a 24-point half, getting the Toyota Center crowd in full throat, and sending the game into halftime knotted at 56. As they have all season long, though, the Warriors hit the gas in the third quarter — and especially after Ariza, one of the Rockets’ key swingmen, picked up his fifth foul trying to stop an Iguodala drive in transition with 9:35 to go, forcing him to the bench for the remainder of the frame.
The Warriors went on a 22-9 run after Ariza’s fifth foul. Durant continued to cook every Rocket that stepped in his path — a drive and a pull-up push shot on Harden, a very rude welcome to Nene with a pull-up over the top of the Brazilian big man the second he checked into the game, a pair of crossovers and a hesitation into a pull-up over Capela at the left elbow:
Despite a comparatively quiet scoring night — 18 points on 8-for-15 shooting, just 1-for-5 from 3-point land — Curry held up his end of the bargain, too. Harden did an awful lot of his damage by hunting him in the screen game, drawing the smaller Steph into one-on-one defense and then either bull-rushing past him to the basket, or stepping back for shots Curry couldn’t contest. Despite getting torched, though, Curry stuck with it, kept moving the ball (eight assists with just one turnover) and staying with the game plan … and eventually, he got one back.
As Gerald Green rushed up to try to screen for Harden and trigger the switch, Curry quickly jumped up high on Harden and tipped the ball away as he tried to pass it to Green, knocking it into the backcourt. He raced to corral the loose ball near the sideline, and kicking it to a cutting Iguodala for a loud right-handed dunk that put the Warriors up by eight:
Golden State ripped off a 12-2 run to take their largest lead of the game, an 85-72 advantage, on a Durant pull-up with 2:23 to go. It looked like things were about to spiral out of control for Houston, which had managed only four points in the previous five minutes, its offense devolving into Eric Gordon drives to nowhere.
But then, Kerr decided to give the smoking hot Durant a brief breather, much to the chagrin of the 2017 NBA Finals MVP …
… and the Rockets took advantage, scoring five quick points with Durant on the bench to stop the bleeding and force Kerr to get KD right the heck back in the game. A Gerald Green 3 on the next possession got the deficit back to five, and helped give Houston a new lease on life, heading into the final quarter down seven at 87-80.
They cut it to four on the first possession of the fourth quarter, when Gordon hit a 3 over a closeout to make it 87-83. They’d never get any closer, though, as a big Draymond block of Nene at the rim led to a Thompson transition 3, followed promptly by Green pushing in transition before finding Thompson trailing for another 3 that pushed the lead back to eight:
A pull-up 3 by Durant made it 100-87 with just under eight minutes to go, and it started to feel like Houston was running out of answers. Harden did his level best to counterpunch, cutting the deficit to seven with a tough 3-pointer over the outstretched arms of Durant with 4:41 remaining. On the Warriors’ next trip, though, after what looked like a missed backcourt violation — Thompson tried to grab an offensive rebound after a missed 3 by Curry, but appeared to lose control without a Rocket deflecting it, and the ball went over the half-court line before Golden State regained possession — the Warriors kept playing, while the Rockets looked for the call.
That allowed Green to cut to the free-throw line, drawing the defensive attention of both Capela and Tucker … which left Thompson wide-open in the corner for another 3-pointer that put Golden State up by 10 with 3:55 to play. Houston went small from there, trying to put up points in bunches to even the score, but with Capela on the bench, Draymond was free to roam, and he wreaked havoc.
He blew up a Harden drive and deflecting his pass to cause a turnover, and then blocked a Tucker 3-pointer in the corner to effectively end Houston’s threat before finishing the game off at the line, keeping the Rockets at arm’s length and coming away with a 1-0 lead. After the volatile start that saw him T’d up a minute and change into the series, Green finished with five points, nine rebounds, nine assists, two steals, two blocks and a game-high +19 in 37 minutes of work.
Houston can get back into the fight on Wednesday. They can do a better job finishing around the rim — they went 17-for-28 at the basket in Game 1, according to Cleaning the Glass, with every miss and Warriors defensive rebound fueling a transition game that produced an 18-3 edge in fast-break points. They can get better production from their role players; Ariza, Tucker and Mbah a Moute combining for something better than 3-for-17 from the floor would help. Paul can more forcefully make his presence felt when Harden needs a breather, something he rarely did on Monday. The bones of the 65-win team are still there.
And yet, the Warriors’ Game 1 performance carried with it the air of inevitability. The Rockets can get 40 from their MVP, and they can run Curry off the line to the tune of a quiet 18 and 8, and they can play the Hamptons Five to a virtual standstill (+2 in 17 minutes) … and it only matters so much. With every jumper over a day-late-and-dollar-short contest by a hopeful Houston defender, Durant made a strong case that his ability to get whatever he wants, wherever and whenever he wants it, and bomb away in isolation is the one question for which the Rockets just don’t have an answer.
If D’Antoni, Harden and company can’t come up with one before Wednesday, what we hoped would be an epic series might turn out to be a lot shorter than we anticipated.
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