The long-awaited series between the two best teams in the NBA finally got underway on Sunday with the many-headed hydra Golden State Warriors outlasting James Harden and the Houston Rockets 104-100 in Oakland. The winner of the series will most likely go on to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in a few weeks and the two teams did not disappoint in their opening salvo. Here are a few of my takeaways from Game 1.
Begging for fouls on three point attempts ain’t gonna cut it against Golden State
Let’s get this out of the way before I get into the rest of the game. Despite the whinging from Houston, as well as ABC’s broadcasting crew, Harden and his fellow Rockets’ attempts to draw fouls on three point attempts may fool the refs during the regular season but they won’t work in the playoffs. Harden has built much of his career off of embellishing contact to get to the line and one of his favorite moves is flinging himself into oncoming defenders to initiate contact. The refs thankfully aren’t buying it, especially on his last attempt of the night, and no amount of barking at the officials is going to make it any more successful of a strategy. Making matters worse, Golden State capitalized by scoring fast break points while Houston’s players were busy bitching at the refs. The Warriors are too talented to beat by berating the refs.
Houston missed a golden opportunity to steal the game early
Throughout the regular season, the Warriors were often and correctly criticised for their occasional lackadaisical play. A team that has played in all four of the last finals and won three can be forgiven for occasional lapses, but Golden State was outright sloppy to open the game. The Warriors had 13 turnovers in the first half leading to 16 Houston points and went 2-13 from the three point line. Houston failed to capitalize, however, opening the game 0-8 from three before hitting their first one with 4:30 left in the first on a Harden stepback and finished the quarter 1-14. Despite the poor opening for the Warriors, the defending champs ended the first period up 9.
Houston’s second quarter play should serve as their blueprint moving forward
Houston battled back in the second period, muddying the game up and letting Harden do his thing, getting into the lane to create opportunities for himself and his teammates. Their offense improved dramatically, shooting 57.6% from the field in the quarter and going 8-13 from deep. The first half ended with Houston forcing two consecutive turnovers in a row leading to run out threes from Harden and Eric Gordon respectively to even the score. Houston was near the top in the league forcing opponent turnovers during the regular season and they’ll need to keep that up to shut down this Warriors team.
Harden is transcendent but clearly outgunned
While James Harden’s career has been defined by his ability to take the world on single-handed, he’s most likely met his match in this Warriors squad. Even with a 27 point outing from Gordon and a respectable 17 from Chris Paul, Golden State had an answer for everything Harden threw at them. As Houston battled back in the second, a sequence beginning with 7 minutes left underscored the talent disparity in the series. Harden hit a stepback three over Draymond Green only for the Warriors to rush back and quickly hit a layup. On the next possession, Harden drove into the lane and hit Nene for an easy layup over Green which the Warriors answered with a Klay Thompson three. Harden got into the lane on the next possession and found Nene again who was fouled and hit both free throws. Then Steph Curry hit a three. After Harden penetrated once more to find Danuel House for a corner three, Durant answered with a fadeaway. Houston then coughed up the ball on a 24 second violation which ultimately led to a Curry three. Even when Harden is at his finest, Golden State can answer back with one of their All-Stars.
Curry and Thompson are not quite right
Adding to the list of missed opportunities for Houston on the night, the splash brothers respective injured ankles are both clearly bothering them. Even though he hit the final dagger, Curry was off, for him at least, finishing with 18 points on 5-12 shooting and going 3-10 from three. Thompson was even worse, ending the game with 13 points on 5-13 shooting. The Warriors tried to get Thompson going in the second quarter, posting him up on Paul which ultimately led to two bricked fadeaways. Thompson opened the third quarter with 5 points and looked to finally be putting it together but ultimately faded from view and failed to score for the rest of the game. All that didn’t really matter, however because…
Kevin Durant is a monster and Houston needs someone other than PJ Tucker to step up
As the game wound down, the Warriors fed off a steady diet of Durant posting up from the mid-range and attacking the basket. Durant scored 35 and did it almost entirely from inside the three point arc. There’s no one in the league who has a chance of stopping Durant when he’s hot and Houston needs to throw more at him than PJ Tucker. Tucker did as well as could be expected, matching up with Durant on more than half of his possessions to hold him to 13 points on 5-12 shooting and giving up only 1 shooting foul. The rest of the Rockets did what they could to hold Durant in check but it was all for naught as Houston could do little more than foul. Hack-a-Durant is not a winning strategy moving forward and Mike D’Antoni has his hands full scheming to stop him.
Game 2 is on Tuesday and the Warriors are favored -5.5 at home. I expect more out of Curry and Thompson and somewhat less out of Eric Gordon and will have to pick Golden State to win big.