Too much Stephen Curry helps Warriors overcome slow start, Rockets for Game 1 win

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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.

Timberwolves win first road game in 52 days, top Heat (video)

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MIAMI — Jordan McLaughlin’s layup with just under nine seconds left put Minnesota ahead for good, D’Angelo Russell led all scorers with 27 points and the Timberwolves added to Miami’s late-season stagger by beating the Heat 129-126 on Wednesday night.

Malik Beasley scored 21 points, Juancho Hernangomez tied a season-high with 17 and McLaughlin added 13 for Minnesota. The Timberwolves were down by 12 with 3:59 left, then closed on a 20-5 run to get just their second victory in 20 games.

Jimmy Butler’s two free throws with 13.8 seconds left put Miami up 126-125, but McLaughlin’s layup on the next Minnesota possession put the Timberwolves on top to stay. Butler’s layup with 3.2 seconds left got blocked by Russell, and the Wolves held on.

Minnesota snapped a nine-game road losing streak, getting its first road victory since beat the Cleveland Cavaliers on Jan. 5.

Kendrick Nunn led Miami with 24 points. Bam Adebayo had 22 points and 10 rebounds and Butler — back after a two-game absence for personal reasons — had 18 for Miami. The Heat fell to 23-4 at home and have dropped seven of their last nine overall.

The Heat stayed a half-game ahead of Philadelphia in the race for the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Philadelphia lost in Cleveland earlier Wednesday, a game where 76ers star Joel Embiid departed early because of a shoulder injury.

The Heat have had major trouble closing games of late — a 22-point lead late in the third quarter against Cleveland on Monday was frittered away in what probably was the worst loss of the season, until now anyway — and a long film session and meeting on Tuesday clearly didn’t solve the issue.

They were up 121-109 with 3:59 left, and 123-112 after a layup by Butler 24 seconds later.

And Minnesota — a team that came into the night with one win in a span of 48 days — still wasn’t finished off. The Timberwolves scored the next 11 points to tie the game, getting five of those points from Beasley and a tying free throw from McLaughlin with 46 seconds left.

TIP-INS

Timberwolves: Minnesota’s 27 attempts from 3-point range in the first two quarters was a first-half franchise record. … The Wolves are 4-0 in road games against Southeast Division teams this season, and 6-19 in all other road contests.

Heat: Adebayo played through a sprained right ankle, pushing his consecutive-game streak to 144 — extending the fourth-longest such streak in team history. … Goran Dragic’s first basket was a 3-pointer, and that pushed him one point past Grant Long (5,473) for 10th on the Heat career scoring list. … Nunn got his third consecutive rookie of the month trophy in a brief halftime ceremony.

JOHNSON RETURNS

Wednesday marked James Johnson’s first game back in Miami since the trade that sent him to Minnesota earlier this month, a move that sent Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill to Miami from Memphis. “I think Minnesota is seeing what kind of versatility he can bring to the game,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

LOOKING AHEAD

A large contingent of fans from Slovenia were in attendance Wednesday — and more are coming Friday, when the Heat play host to the Dallas Mavericks. At last season’s Dallas-at-Miami game, more than 2,000 Slovenians were in attendance to watch their nation’s two best NBA players, Dragic and Dallas star Luka Doncic, go head-to-head.

UP NEXT

Timberwolves: At Orlando on Friday night.

Heat: Host Dallas on Friday night.

Trae Young blocks 7-foot Mo Bamba at rim (video)

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Trae Young might be the NBA’s worst defender.

He’s small (6-foot-1 with a 6-foot-3 wingspan). His athleticism is far from imposing. He also carries a massive load for the Hawks offensively, leaving little energy for defense.

But he still blocked 7-foot Magic center Mo Bamba at the rim.

Not a great moment for Bamba.

Joel Embiid leaves 76ers game with shoulder injury (video)

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Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons?

The debate has gained attention this season after the 76ers spent years retooling around their stars. The answer clearly isn’t neither. But that’s what Philadelphia now faces.

With Simmons already injured, Embiid got hurt in the 76ers’ game against the Cavaliers tonight.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Losing Embiid for an extended period would be a huge blow to Philadelphia, especially with Simmons already out. The 76ers (fifth place, half a game out of fourth) are right on the edge of getting home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Embiid had been playing so well lately. This is an especially tough time for a setback.

At least Philadelphia has depth to cope. Al Horford can easily slide from power forward to center. Tobias Harris might be better off at power forward than small forward, anyway. This is where Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks, acquired just before the trade deadline, come in handy as additional wing options. Kyle O'Quinn can also play behind Horford.

But the loss of talent is the biggest development, and there’s no overcoming that until Embiid and Simmons get healthy.

Zach LaVine: Trash talk directed at Dennis Schroder, not Bulls coach Jim Boylen

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During the Bulls’ loss to the Thunder yesterday, Zach LaVine appeared to say, “I have f—ing 40 points!”

Many assumed LaVine was snapping at Chicago coach Jim Boylen. But LaVine clarified his target was Oklahoma City guard Dennis Schroder.

Eric Woodyard of ESPN:

I take LaVine at his word.

Want to make a case LaVine dislikes Boylen? You’ll just have to point to all the other evidence.