What was one of the most anticipated series in some time has begun with a familiar result: a double-digit Golden State win. Amid incredible shot-making from star forward Kevin Durant and elite defense from Draymond Green, the Warriors broke a halftime tie and built an 11-point lead halfway through the fourth.
Durant scored 37 points, most from ridiculous midrange isos, and Klay Thompson added 28. Meanwhile, James Harden played one of the best offensive games of his playoff career, 41 points on 14 of 24 shooting from the field.
Mismatch and isolation basketball were among the only features of both teams’ offenses the whole game. We had seen the Rockets play this brand of ball throughout the year, but in this contest, Harden and Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni redefined the purpose of a ball screen. Instead of looking to attack as a big man rolls, many times the sole reason for screening action was to generate a mismatch for Harden.
A tight first half
This was emphasized right from tipoff, with the Rockets hunting Stephen Curry and forcing him to guard Harden. The Warriors played few possessions with conventional pick-and-roll defense and allowed Harden the clean looks that he knew he could get with the smaller Curry on him.
On the first play of the game, Durant thought they were switching but Curry didn’t, and Harden got a wide-open three. The same play was run shortly afterward, and this time, Harden was able to elevate over Curry with his patented step-back.
Andre Iguodala picked up two fouls quickly and was subbed for by center Kevon Looney. Houston immediately went after him with Harden, who had a 12-point first quarter.
The Rockets were actually up, 23-14, with four minutes left in the first, but Durant quickly exploded. Here, after he got Eric Gordon on him from a switch, Houston impressively switched Luc Richard Mbah a Moute on him as Nick Young cleared out to the other side.
But Durant simply didn’t care and drained a pull-up in the paint.
Houston probably should have won the first quarter by 5 or 6 points, but after Harden went out, the offense slightly sputtered. This is one of the drawbacks of having such an iso-heavy offense.
Chris Paul was not able to have the same success in the Harden iso role, having trouble getting all the way to the rim. Instead, Houston only held a 1-point lead going into the second.
The Warriors began the second quarter with a lineup of Thompson, Young, Green, Shaun Livingston and David West, while the Rockets unearthed Ryan Anderson to play with Paul, Gordon, Gerald Green, and Mbah a Moute.
Houston needs to win this type of minutes if they want to win the series, but Golden State brought back its motion offense and built a 3-point lead by the time Durant and Harden came back at the 8:10 mark.
In this span, Mbah a Moute missed two costly semi contested layups, seemingly to the chagrin of D’Antoni, who only played him 17 minutes in the game.
Again, the Rockets could have won the quarter and taken a lead into halftime, but two defensive lapses within the last minute gave the Warriors 5 easy points.
It was a low turnover half for both teams (five for Golden State, four for Houston), which is a more positive sign for the Warriors, who tend to be prone to turnovers.
Houston losing focus
But third quarters are usually where Golden State pounces, and Houston was not able to stem the tide. The Rockets were lucky to only lose the quarter by 7 points, turning the ball over six times to the Warriors’ one.
Clint Capela came alive in the beginning, showing his importance to the Rockets’ pick-and-roll game. His athleticism and finishing touch make it so much easier for Houston to convert on drives when the defense converges on Harden.
On the first play, after Harden got Curry on the switch, he drew the help from Draymond Green and threw the lob to Capela. The Rockets’ spacing was such that there was no Warrior left to “help the helper.” Durant should ideally be much lower, parallel to Trevor Ariza in the corner, so that he could help on Capela, but then Ariza would be open for the corner three.
The second play was similar. Harden got going downhill, and Capela sneaked behind the help for the lob. Again, it was very tough to say which Warrior should be preventing the lob, as Capela was in perfect position at the dunker’s spot, behind Iguodala and far from Thompson.
If he had been on the other side, Thompson may have been able to cut down and help, and then Curry would have rotated to the open Paul.
On the other end, Capela is becoming one of the NBA’s premier switch defenders. But, alas, Durant didn’t care.
The Rockets were within 3 points with 6:36 to go in the third, but then disaster struck. After Harden missed a wide-open layup and failed to get back, Thompson hit a transition three to make it a 6-point lead. Two Houston lazy turnovers and two Golden State offensive rebounds then followed, and Golden State was up by 13 with 2:23 left.
This stretch was where Houston lost the game. Harden was shredded by Curry, no one boxed out Looney, and Mbah a Moute missed another layup. These mistakes are as solvable as can be, and they are the kind that you can’t make against this Golden State team and expect to win.
Houston pulled two 26-footers out of its bag to cut the quarter deficit to 7, but Golden State got hot in the early fourth, went up double digits and never looked back.
Losing home court in Game 1 is killer for the Rockets. This makes Game 2 an absolute must-win, and they’ll have to pick up one at Oracle as well, to make it 2-2 going into a Game 5.
This was undoubtedly a winnable game for Houston, but simple errors such as losing focus for a couple minutes will lose the game immediately against Golden State. There is too much Warrior talent and shot-making to make up deficits late in games.
Durant is going to get his in the isos, and Harden can match those points. But Houston cannot allow Golden State to get out in transition off live-ball turnovers, as the Rockets had 13 turnovers to the Warriors’ nine. Allowing 18 fast-break points is not horrible, but it would be much easier for the Rockets to win if they could limit that to 12 or 13.
It’s worth mentioning that Harden’s defense gave up about 15 to 20 easy points, but I’m not sure how much of that can be fixed.
Paul played a fine game, with 23 points on 8 of 17 shooting and only one turnover. Going forward, however, he will need to be almost as superb as Harden (at least offensively) if the Rockets want to win.
He only had three assists, as most of his on-ball possessions were isolations against bigger defenders when Harden was resting. Look for more pick-and-roll movement when he is on-ball to create those corner threes we saw in the regular season for players such as Ariza and Tucker.
As for Golden State, Durant will continue to hit those kinds of shots. The Warriors did a great job of limiting turnovers, but that has been their prevailing issue in this four-year run.
They could also stand to benefit from trying conventional pick-and-roll defense when Harden gets going as they did, trusting their rotations. Nevertheless, they were able to contain an explosive Houston offense playing the scheme that they did.
Dev Navani writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].