OAKLAND, Calif. — We may have misspoken a bit leading into the Celebrity Death Match-style showdown between the Warriors and Rockets. Most were saying it could be the best series of the playoffs. After Golden State’s 104-101 Game 1 win on Sunday, maybe we should amend that to say the most competitive series of the playoffs.
Sunday’s game featured at least three of the top 10 players in the NBA in James Harden, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry — depending on your rankings, possibly three of the top five. If you factor in Chris Paul, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, you might be talking about six of the top 25 players in the league in one series. However, between the turnovers (36 combined), the missed 3-pointers (30 percent combined) and the fouls (45 combined), at times this game looked more like an off-roading SUV than an elegant waltz between two of the most efficient offenses in the NBA. Just look at some of these stat lines:
- Harden: 9-for-28 (4-for-16 3-pointers), four turnovers
- Durant: 11-for-25, six turnovers
- Curry: 5-for-12 (3-for-10 3-pointers), three turnovers
- Thompson: 5-for-13, three turnovers
The contrast in styles between the Warriors and Rockets has been evident for a few seasons, and during Game 1 it was clear whose style won out. The game was played at a pace of 97.5 possessions, well below the Warriors’ regular-season average of 101.78 and their pace against the Clippers in the first round (103.08). For the Rockets, it was just about in their sweet spot. But while some would argue that this style of play, holding the Warriors to 104 points, favors the Rockets, Paul wasn’t buying it after the game.
“I just want to win. I don’t care how it looks, to tell you the truth, honestly,” Paul said after the game. “I mean, they got 104 [points] and we ain’t got 105, so that’s the problem. That’s the name of the game is winning.”
Besides the slower pace,, and the notorious player grogginess associated with early tip times — this one started at 12:30 p.m. local time — one clue as to why the game got so ugly is the familiarity that these teams share. Not only did they compete in a grueling seven-game series last postseason that was essentially the de facto NBA Finals, but they also have an extensive playoff history, with even their regular-season matchups gaining an extra edge and bitterness due to the newfound rivalry.
“We’ve faced these guys three of the last four years in the playoffs. Obviously last year, a seven-game series, four more regular season games,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after the game. “So both teams know each other well. So it’s going to be tough to surprise anybody with a strategy. It’s all about execution.”
It’s not easy to execute in any playoff game, but when the other team knows your plays, your counters and your counters to your counters, you’re in for a long night. Through that lens, the Rockets’ 1-for-14 3-point shooting in the first quarter can be viewed as more than just a cold start, as Golden State forced them into contested shots outside of their sweet spots. The Warriors’ 20-turnover game was partially a focus issue, but the Rockets were also a step ahead of some attempted back-door passes, and they intercepted a few cross-court lasers that normally find the hands of one of the Warriors’ shooters.
And then there was the total neutralization of Clint Capela, a borderline All-Star who provides a much-needed lob outlet when Harden draws defenders in the lane. Capela was a non-factor with four points on just two shot attempts in 26 minutes — if Capela only has two shot attempts, it means you’re protecting the rim well. On more than one occasion, Harden tried to throw that same lob pass he’s executed so perfectly all season long, only to see it swatted away by Green, Durant or another long-armed Warriors defender. Again, this was no accident.
“I think we ran back on defense a lot when [Capela] was in the game because he’s such a good runner; he gets a lot of transition buckets from turnovers,” Durant said after the game. “I think on their lob game, we tried not to come off of him too much, but be on the drives as well.”
It’s one thing to know the other team’s game plan, but it’s quite another to actually be able to stop it. We saw a combination of both on Sunday, and that’s probably how it will be for the rest of the series. Sometimes the individual talent of Harden, Durant or Curry will just be too much. Sometimes Eric Gordon will get hot as he did in Game 1, or Green will suddenly hit five 3-pointers, defying a defensive scheme designed to make him shoot. And, as we saw in Game 1, sometimes Curry will hit a beautiful step-back 3-pointer in Nene’s face to ice the game.
But ultimately wins or losses in this series will come down to grit, energy and, as much as we hate to admit it, the occasional lucky bounce. Just don’t expect it to be pretty all the time.
“When you play someone as much as we’ve played them, you know what they’re trying to get to and they know what we’re trying to get to. And you can know that and still not stop it,” Green said after Game 1. “The game usually comes down to more than what we know and what they know. It usually comes down to a few loose balls — who is making those extra effort plays, who is getting the 50-50 balls, who is cleaning up the glass the best. That’s usually what it comes down to when a team knows the other opposing team as well as we know them and as well as they know us.”