Golden State would like to remind you they are the defending NBA champions. For good reason.
Houston brought its MVP to the table in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals and James Harden had 41 points on 24 shots, hit five threes and had seven assists. The Rockets brought the three ball and took 37 of them (hitting 35.1 percent). They brought their switching defense aimed directly and dealing with the Warriors.
None of it mattered.
Kevin Durant looked like the MVP he once was too with 37 points on 27 shots. The Warriors hit just as many threes as the Rockets (in four fewer shots). More importantly, they picked apart the lapses in the Rockets switching defense — and there were plenty, more and more as the game wore on and players got tired. Klay Thompson kept getting uncontested threes (he had 28 points). Harden was a defensive liability and the Warriors directly targeted him.
The result was a 119-106 Golden State win in Game 1 on the road, where the Warriors were comfortably ahead through the final minutes of the game.
The Warriors now lead the series 1-0 and look in control, having won the first game on the Rockets’ home court.
The big difference in this game was the defense — the Warriors were solid, making the Rockets really work hard for their buckets on every possession. The Rockets would do that for stretches, but then have breakdowns in matchups or effort that led to layups or uncontested threes.
The Rockets tried to make Durant work for his buckets, but it usually just didn’t matter.
“Kevin is the ultimate luxury,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game. “A play can break down and you just throw him the ball. He can get a bucket as well as anybody on Earth.”
Harden went off in this one — as he has done in the first couple games of the first two rounds of the playoffs — and in this game the Rockets relentlessly targeted Stephen Curry, setting picks to force him onto Harden. Curry did not have a standout offensive night (18 points, eight assists), but he battled Harden as best he could on defense, gave a full effort and make Harden put in the effort. Draymond Green was able to help a lot, especially when Clint Capela sat (he needs to play more, especially late), but give Curry credit for the effort.
“If that’s the game plan they want to stick with, my job is to make it as tough as possible,” Curry said.
“We know James is an all-world scorer, he’s gonna make shots over us, we just try to stay solid,” Durant said.
Houston got the start it wanted — Harden hit a couple of stepback threes early, one over Curry. Harden opened the game with 12 fast points on 4-of-6 shooting. Green cane out over-hyped and emotional, picked up a needless technical for shoving Harden, and made some defensive mistakes. Capela was making plays on defense in the paint and held his own.
“Well, they home for Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, we knew they were going to come out with a lot of energy, especially after that long layoff,” Durant said. “We just tried to take that first punch and keep fighting.”
Keep fighting they did. The Warriors were the Warriors. They stayed steady, Kevin Durant had 17 points in the first half, Klay Thompson hit a couple of threes and Nick Young came out of nowhere to drain three more from deep in the first half.
The Rockets never pulled away, it was 30-29 Houston after one quarter, and 56-56 at the half. It felt like a blow chance.
Durant owned the third, with 13 points, and the Warriors stretched their lead out to double digits, but a late 8-0 Rockets run kept it close 87-80 after three. Still, the Rockets just could not execute well enough down the stretch.
The Warriors could. They have done this before. And unless the Rockets find another couple of gears, the Warriors are going to again.