The Warriors looked like every bit the juggernaut they’ve been for the past four years on Monday night, stealing homecourt with a 119–106 win over the Rockets in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. Houston’s hard work to earn the No. 1 seed came undone in 48 minutes, thanks in large part to an unstoppable performance from Kevin Durant. Here are some quick thoughts after the first game of the NBA’s most anticipated series…
• Durant was unreal Monday night. He scored 37 points on 14-of-27 shooting and was by far the best player on the floor. This is the dilemma for Houston—what do you do when Durant is cooking? The Rockets chose not to double off of any shooters, and they paid the price. It made sense for Houston, which chose to live with contested twos instead of open threes and layups. The problem is, contested twos are too easy for Durant when he’s shooting over smaller defenders or creating space against slow-footed bigs. There’s probably no magical strategy switch for Houston to make; Mike D’Antoni will probably have to hope Durant misses some more tough looks moving forward. But Game 1 was an example of the Warriors at their most unfair. You cover Steph Curry and Klay Thompson only to see one of the best scorers in the history of basketball launch effortless Js over your most rugged defenders.
• The switching on defense got out of hand in Game 1. Both teams relentlessly hunted for mismatches in almost comical fashion. Both Curry and James Harden were routinely sought out on the defensive end, but the strategy most often favored the Warriors. The Rockets too often settled when Harden or Chris Paul got the matchup they wanted. Harden and Paul overdribbled too much Monday, letting the shot clock wind down and their options dwindle. Houston understandably wants to slow the pace a little bit, but it can’t do so at the expense of finding good looks. This seems like a correctable issue moving forward—Harden and Paul essentially need to make quicker decisions.
• On the other end, Houston was too quick to switch defensively. Golden State would set half-hearted screens and the Rockets would flip defenders no matter what. A player could simply brush by Nené off the ball and he would decide to defend Thompson 30 feet from the basket. It didn’t make much sense. The Warriors certainly took advantage, and while Golden State played its fair share of one-on-one ball in Game 1, the other players on the floor were still active, which made a difference in how these teams fared in isolation.
And to the Warriors’ credit, they did a remarkable job of defending Clint Capela in pick-and-rolls. He still scored 12 points, but Houston couldn’t collapse the defense as well as it has earlier in these playoffs. The Rockets attempted 37 threes on Monday, five fewer than what they averaged during the regular season.
• Houston’s role players need to step up moving forward. Eric Gordon got going a bit in the second half, but Trevor Ariza struggled with foul trouble, P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute couldn’t hit shots, and Gerald Green (stop me if you’ve heard this before) struggled defensively. If there’s a silver lining for the Rockets, it’s that Ariza, Tucker and Mbah a Moute hopefully won’t combine to go 1-of-9 from three in any other game this series. Having said that, Tucker and Mbah a Moute haven’t been knockdown shooters their entire career, so Houston will have to find a way to live with their ups and downs against a Warriors team that forces you to play perfectly.
• The Warriors may feel like they didn’t play their best. Curry scored only 18 points, hitting only 1-of-5 from three. If Steph catches fire, it’s possible future contests in this series could be blowouts. The concern is if Curry just had an off night, or if he’s still feeling the effects of his knee injury. The pedestrian game didn’t matter because Durant was dealing, but Steph’s impact is something to keep an eye on moving forward if the Rockets find a way to slow down KD.
• Overall, that was an exciting Game 1. The Warriors pulled away by the end of the third, but the first half was absolutely thrilling. There are still some reasons to believe Houston can be competitive, but it certainly won’t be easy. Harden and Paul combined for 64 points, but bigger contributions will be needed from the other wings. Golden State is well beyond its regular season boredom and the Rockets now have the Warriors’ full attention. Different players may or may not end up going off as the series progresses. For now, Golden State has sent a very obvious reminder about why they are the league’s prohibitive title favorite.