Stephen Curry looked every bit the MVP.
Before the series both sides tried to play down the Curry vs. James Harden angle — the top two MVP vote getters would not guard each other — yet Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals felt like a showdown between them at times.
A showdown Curry won. He had 34 points on 22 shots, hit six threes, and had 21 of those points in the second half — including what ended up being a contested dagger three in transition — and that was enough. Despite James Harden’s 28 points and big game.
Golden State beat Houston 110-106 to take Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Game 2 is Thursday night.
Houston took the lead early as the Warriors looked more rusty than rested after nearly a week off. The Rockets raced out to 9-2 lead and while that lead ebbed and flowed the Rockets got the shots they wanted. Houston shot 59.1 percent, got 20 points in the paint, and got a dozen points from their bench to lead 31-24 after 12 minutes. The Warriors shot just 36 percent in the quarter.
However, what may have been the key play in the game also happened late in the first. Dwight Howard left the game after Josh Smith fell into his knee following a running shot across the lane. Howard went to the locker room for a while but returned to the game before the first quarter ended. However, he never moved the same the rest of the night. He wasn’t the same defensively — after having a big impact early — and didn’t score in the second half. Compared to the Howard the Clippers faced it was a world of difference. Howard played his usual third quarter shift, came back in for :52 seconds of the fourth quarter, then sat the rest of the game with what the team called a bruised knee.
The Warriors had success against the hobbled Howard and Houston when they went small with Draymond Green at the five. The Rockets had pushed their second quarter lead as high as 17 when Green and Curry sat, but once the Warriors went small with Draymond Greed as their center they went on a 25-6 run. The Warriors led 58-55 at the half after a vintage Curry step-back two.
“With our small lineup we can spread the floor pretty well,” Kerr said after the game. “Put Draymond (Green) in the middle as the screener for Steph (Curry), then find shooters on the perimeter. It really stretches people out.”
Golden State also got help off its bench — the first 21 Warriors points of the second quarter from guys off the bench. Shaun Livingston finished the game with 18 points on 6-of-8 shooting to lead that Warriors bench group.
“He was terrific, kind of kept us in the game in the second quarter when we were really struggling,” Kerr said. “Getting to the line, hitting a little midrange, his defense was good. That’s what I like about our team, we tend to find somebody.”
Golden State made some plays in the third quarter and the start of the fourth, but never pulled away thanks to Harden, who had 21 points on 13 shots in the second half. The Rockets caught up behind Harden and tied the game 97-97 in the fourth.
That’s when Golden state went on 6-0 run, exposing the limited Rockets help defense. As a team, they lost Curry and other Warriors on baseline cuts and off the ball picks all night.
But if you have watched these Rockets, you knew they wouldn’t go away. Houston cut the lead to 108-106 with 14.6 seconds left after a Trevor Ariza steal and three.
But Curry was the guy with the ball, he was fouled, and sank two free throws to ice the game.
The big questions going into Game 2 is can the Warriors play better — it wasn’t their best defensive effort of the postseason — and how effective will Dwight Howard be? Without him, the Warriors went on a 42-30 run on points in the paint that the Rockets simply cannot allow.