The Golden State Warriors survived a taut and contentious opening game of their highly anticipated second-round series with the Houston Rockets thanks to copious amounts of a supremely grooved Kevin Durant — and one crucial late dagger from Stephen Curry.
The Warriors also left little doubt that their unexpectedly significant exertions just to get out of the Western Conference’s first round, and how those efforts may affect this title defense, are at the forefront of their thinking.
Clearly feeling a sense of urgency even before the opening tip, Warriors Coach Steve Kerr made a drastic lineup change for Game 1, putting his most accomplished lineup on the floor from the start. Kerr also went deeper into his bench than normal, using 10 of his 13 available players to counter fatigue and Golden State’s turnover trouble to secure a 104-100 victory in a raggedy opener for both sides.
With the Warriors playing just 36 hours and change after being dragged by the Los Angeles Clippers to a costly sixth game — in which Klay Thompson and Curry sustained ankle injuries — Kerr moved the wily supersub Andre Iguodala into his starting lineup and shifted the 6-foot-7 Draymond Green to center. It was the first time Golden State’s so-called Hamptons Five started a game this season, but it was a measure Kerr thought he couldn’t resist given the uncertain health of his star guards.
“You get to the playoffs and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” Kerr said. “You’ve got to play your best players and see what happens.”
Durant responded with 35 points — 24 in the second half — to diminish the damage of Golden State’s 20 turnovers. He matched James Harden’s point total for Houston and boosted his scoring average over the Warriors’ past five playoff games to 40.2 points, with nearly 55 percent shooting. Green (14 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists) and Iguodala (14 points and 6-for-7 shooting in 34 minutes) also responded with strong games to ease the demands on Thompson and Curry.
Thompson, though, still logged more than 41 minutes despite pregame concerns that he might not even be able to play. And Curry survived the final six-plus minutes of regulation with five fouls to drain a decisive 3-pointer with 25.9 seconds left in an isolation mismatch against the Houston reserve center Nene after the Rockets had drawn to 100-98.
The Rockets arrived in the Bay Area on Friday, before the Warriors had even finished off the Clippers, feeling their own urgency. Still stinging from last season’s epic conference finals in which it squandered two chances to eliminate Golden State, Houston is well aware that this rematch — albeit one round earlier — has again been widely billed as the de facto N.B.A. finals.
“They know this is what it’s for,” Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni said of his players before tipoff.
Houston’s prevailing postgame emotion, however, was frustration — not only from a missed opportunity to swipe home-court advantage from the two-time defending champions but also with the refereeing of the game. The Rockets were aggrieved by what they deemed multiple Golden State closeouts on 3-point attempts by Harden that should have been whistled for fouls.
“I just want a fair shake, man,” Harden said. “Call the game how it’s supposed to be called and that’s it. And I’ll live with the results.”
Eric Gordon scored 27 points in support of Harden’s 35, but Houston missed 16 of its first 18 attempts from 3-point range and was just 14 for 47 over all. Harden, who missed 19 of 28 shots from the field, failed to draw a foul from Green on his 3-point try with 9.1 seconds to go, which led to Chris Paul’s ejection seconds later for protesting the noncall.
Paul appeared to make contact with the referee Josh Tiven in earning his second technical foul. It was the 12th ejection of the N.B.A. playoffs after just three during the 2018 postseason.
“When you land three feet ahead of where you shoot the ball from, that really ain’t my issue,” Green said, arguing that Harden did not deserve more than his 14 trips to the foul line because he repeatedly leaned into the defender or extended his arms in search of a whistle.
Nearly a year has passed since the Warriors overturned double-digit deficits in both Game 6 and Game 7 to climb out of a 3-2 series deficit and advance to the title round, but the rivalry between these teams never really goes dormant.
According to four people familiar with the courtships who were not authorized to discuss them publicly, Philadelphia made lucrative attempts last July to hire Warriors General Manager Bob Myers or Houston’s Daryl Morey to take over the 76ers’ front office. But Myers and Morey elected to stay where they are, knowing they would probably be reunited in the playoffs in a series whose survivor instantly becomes the consensus favorite to win it all.
When Houston slumped to fourth in the West late in the regular season, its tumble almost instantly begot a theory that it might be better for the Rockets to face the dynastic Warriors in the second round — mostly owing to freshness.
The 31-point lead Golden State blew in Game 2 against the Clippers in the biggest collapse in playoff history, coupled with the Warriors’ failure to close out the series in a Game 5 at home, seemed to give the theory even more credence. Especially after Thompson and Curry sustained their Game 6 injuries.
Morey, though, admitted in a podcast interview with the former New York Times reporter Howard Beck that he “did personally want to face the Warriors later.” After spending nearly a half-decade trying to construct a roster that could topple the Warriors, without success to this point, Morey was clearly hesitant to publicly declare advantages of any sort for his team in his appearance on “The Full 48.”
The Warriors duly made Morey’s caution look prudent with the way they kept feeding a patient and efficient Durant in the fourth quarter, rendered Houston’s Clint Capela a nonfactor and ultimately secured a 1-0 series lead to take into Tuesday night’s Game 2.
“There’s never been anybody like him: 6-11, handles the ball, shoots 3s, passes, defends,” Kerr said of Durant.
After the Warriors halted a rare two-game playoff losing streak at home, Green credited Kerr’s lineup switch as the other key to complement Durant.
“So many times you kind of go in the series and you wait to take a loss to make that first adjustment,” Green said. “I think we just got ahead of it.”
Source: Marc Stein