The Golden State Warriors coasted to four double-digit wins over the Houston Rockets to sweep them this regular season. The West's No. 1 seed picked up another victory over Houston in Tuesday's Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals at Oracle Arena, but it was significantly more difficult than any of those prior matchups.
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
Despite falling behind by 15 points in the second quarter, the Warriors closed the first half on a 25-6 run and controlled the second half as Stephen Curry scored 21 of his game-high 34 points (13-of-22 FG, 6-of-11 3FG) after the break. James Harden kept the Rockets close in the fourth quarter with a masterful showing, but a late comeback fell short as the Warriors took Game 1, 110-106. Houston will take a lot of positives from this performance, although an injury to star center Dwight Howard's left knee could change the dynamic of this series moving forward.
For a time, it looked as if the Rockets were in position to steal homecourt advantage from a Warriors team that has lost three games at home all season. Both teams closed the conference semis playing their best basketball of the postseason, but it was the Rockets who managed to carry over that success to the early part of Game 1 thanks to some very poor defense from the Warriors. Houston continually got Golden State out of position while covering the pick-and-roll and put up 31 points in the opening quarter. The stats provide an accurate picture of how they did it — 13-of-22 shooting from the field with only four attempts from beyond the arc, 20 points in the paint, and 10 free-throw attempts (albeit with just four makes) against a team that continually frustrated the Memphis Grizzlies at the rim in the second round. For whatever reason, the Warriors' vaunted switching defense looked at least a step slow, particularly after David Lee subbed in for starter Andrew Bogut after six minutes. A 31-24 margin after one turned into a 49-33 advantage after five minutes of the second, and the Warriors looked headed for the same sort of questionable performance that put them in a 2-1 hole vs. the Grizzlies.
Many of Golden State's issues appeared self-inflicted. Houston built their 16-point lead against some limited lineups featuring four reserves and few creators, a bit of a surprise considering that head coach Steve Kerr had tightened the rotation to eight players in the three series-closing wins vs. Memphis. In general, the Warriors appeared to get away from the excellent ball movement and switching defense that have become their trademarks, instead opting for one-on-one plays and rotating at a slow speed that lacked the level of urgency necessary for this moment. At the very least, it was a reminder that the Warriors did not solve every problem when they turned things around against the Grizzlies. They will see more challenges as they continue to move through the playoffs.
On the bright side, it took them relatively little time to get back on track. The Warriors closed the half on a 25-6 run that gave them an improbable 58-55 halftime lead, reversing the course of a poor start to take control of the game. It happened in large part due to Steve Kerr's decision to go small with Draymond Green at center. The Rockets played right into the Warriors' hands by going at Green on Howard post-ups, which allowed for swarming defense to force turnovers and get out in transition. Howard committed three of his five turnovers over a stretch of roughly 2:30 before sitting with his third foul as the Rockets offense got far easier to defend.
It was a rough sequence for Howard, although one that requires some explanation. Teammate Josh Smith fell into the left knee of the eight-time All-Star at the 5:50 mark of the first quarter, which forced Howard off the court for some tests:
He made a fairly quick return, but Howard was clearly less spry and played only 26 total minutes before leaving the game for good late in the third quarter with a left knee bruise. (Howard missed roughly two months this season with right knee soreness, so this was not a reaggravation.) His status for Thursday's Game 2 is as yet undetermined, but it's safe to say that his availability (or lack thereof) will change the shape of this series.
With Howard or not, the Rockets simply could not stop the Warriors in the second quarter. Shaun Livingston was a terror in transition and scored 16 of a career playoff-high 18 points in the first half on 5-of-6 from the field and 6-of-6 from the line. While much analysis of this team focuses on Curry and Klay Thompson, Livingston's play was a reminder of what the Warriors do as a team, with defense and minor individual contributions amplifying each other to allow any player to break out at any time. In fact, Curry scored just two points in the second quarter. They just happened to come in dramatic fashion on this long two to beat the halftime buzzer:
The third quarter continued to go the Warriors' way. Jason Terry struggled to keep Curry under wraps both on and off the ball, opening up many holes in the Rockets defense and allowing many players to contribute. Green (13 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists, two steals) and Harrison Barnes (14 points on 6-of-12 FG) bounced back from substandard shooting halves to serve as an effective secondary scorers with Thompson expending most of his energy guarding Harden at the other end. The Warriors never got the lead above six points in the third, but it looked as if they could score enough to ensure that the Rockets would not get back on top.
That turned out to be the case, except that Houston made things far less comfortable than expected. Harden got just two free-throw attempts in the second half but scored 21 of his 28 points on 9-of-13 shooting in the second half. He earned every one of them — Thompson forced him into a series of stepbacks and tough finishes, only for Harden to convert over and over in big spots. It was as impressive a one-on-one display as we've seen in this postseason so far, and it's the biggest reason why the Rockets managed to be tied at 97-97 with only 5:28 remaining in regulation.
Unfortunately for Houston, Harden was so good as to be unsustainable. His scoring onslaught was both spectacular and necessary, because the Howard-less defense had few answers for a small Warriors lineup that used screens and movement to get open shot after open shot. They responded to that 97-97 tie with an 11-0 run during which Harden commited two turnovers and took zero shots. At 108-97 with two minutes left, the game looked over.
Credit to the Rockets, then, for making it very, very close. Houston employed its own active defense to hold the Warriors scoreless until Curry took two intentional free throws with 11 seconds left, right after Trevor Ariza had nailed a transition three to cut the score to 108-106. Curry knocked down both shots to ice the game, but the Rockets sent a message that they're not going to go down without a fight.
Whether mere effort is enough is another story. The Rockets played well enough to beat most teams and brought the necessary activity that they often lacked against the Los Angeles Clippers, so in many ways they can see Game 1 as a positive. Harden started slowly but was quite excellent with 28 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists, playing like the superstar we know him to be. There were also some quality secondary performances — Ariza was especially terrific with 20 points on 4-of-5 from beyond the arc — even if past heroes like Corey Brewer and Jason Terry made limited impacts.
Despite that narrow final margin, the Warriors can look ahead to the rest of the series with a great deal of confidence. The Rockets' best stretches of this game could prove difficult to sustain, in that their early success relied on some truly awful Warriors defense and Harden's second-half heroics came on many difficult looks. While Harden's final tally of 28 points on 20 attempts doesn't look especially hard for him to reproduce, it will be tough for him to convert so many looks on shots of that quality without an increase in free throw attempts.
By contrast, the Warriors are always going to have a matchup advantage as long as Curry is guarded by Terry. Game 1 indicated just how much the Rockets miss regular starter Patrick Beverley, a tireless worker who would relish chasing an MVP around screens all night. Simply moving Terry off Curry and onto another defender isn't much of an answer, because that will create a height mismatch without clearly improving the defense on the best shooter of his generation. Like many coaches, Kevin McHale doesn't have an easy answer to this problem.
Plus, this challenge becomes even more daunting if Howard is limited by his latest knee injury. After several years as a social media punchline, Howard has protected the rim during these playoffs as well as he has since leaving Orlando, allowing Houston's perimeter defenders to chase shooters off the three-point line and funnel them into the paint. The Rockets are used to playing without their center and got good minutes from rookie Clint Capela on Tuesday — they will figure out some alternate plan without him. But the Warriors are hard enough to face at full strength. No opponent wants to start cobbling together adjustments after just one game.
Perhaps this concern is premature. Houston was impressive for the vast majority of this game and can look ahead with a not entirely unreasonable belief that they can win in Oakland. But they can't win this series without beating Golden State on the road at least once, and it's possible that this was their best shot. The Warriors have proven that they can correct their own mistakes fairly quickly, and the Rockets may have limited options to close the gap.
- - - - - - -