OAKLAND, Calif.—After 18 promising, eye-opening minutes, Houston's shot at a Game 1 upset of Golden State caved in from the lineup edges.
Entering the Western Conference finals, there was little doubt that Houston would struggle to contain Stephen Curry, as 75 combined years of life experience still isn't sufficient for Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni to slow down an MVP. But the Rockets were counting on a reinvigorated Dwight Howard to help even the scales by owning the interior like he did against the Mavericks and Clippers.
Tuesday saw the anticipated dominance from Curry and an unexpected knee injury for Howard, a one-two combination that guided Golden State's 110–106 come-from-behind victory. Overmatched at point guard and shorthanded at center, Houston watched as a decent shot at a rare road win at Oracle Arena slipped away.
Game 1 turned midway through the second quarter, just as the crowd's anxiety was starting to bubble. Fresh off three consecutive wins in elimination games and thriving in the high-pace environment, the Rockets quickly built a 16-point second-quarter lead in a game that oddsmakers pegged them to lose by 10. "Sometimes in Game 1, there is a feeling out process," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "Houston was not in that process and we were."
Reserve guard Shaun Livingston finally reversed the momentum for Golden State, pounding away at his smaller matchups in order to set up short jumpers and earn trips to the line. Livingston pressed Houston's backcourt for 10 of his 18 points in a three-minute span, and his success was contagious for a small, versatile Warriors unit that featured Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, and Draymond Green. "That's the beauty of the playoffs," Curry said. "Every night main guys are going to show up and hopefully play well, but you need pieces around you to do what they do and carry some of that load."
When Howard went out with a left knee bruise with a little more than three minutes remaining in the first half, Golden State was able to continue playing small without fear of interior repercussions. Golden State closed the half on a 21-4 run, with Curry completing the flourish with a buzzer-beating jumper that brought Oracle alive. Houston, who initially enjoyed total command, now looked a step behind. All five Warriors players scored during the closing stretch, a sign of Golden State's unselfishness and Houston's hesitance. "When [Howard is] out, the floor is going to be more spaced," Kerr said. "That's when you have to attack, get into the paint, and move the ball on."
When they are at their best, the Warriors don't "attack" so much as they flood the hoop with points. There is absolutely a demoralizing effect on the opponent when Golden State has it rolling, and Houston did well to avoid folding as the rest of the game played out. Nevertheless, the takeaway from the first half was clear: the Warriors needed just six minutes to erase a lead their opponents spent 18 minutes building and, even more frighteningly, their success during that stretch looks totally sustainable.
Curry proved he could get any shot he wanted, whether he was beyond the arc working off the dribble or at the basket after moving without the ball. Livingston staked his claim as a series X-factor and nightmare matchup for Houston's second unit. Barnes played the part of auxiliary option perfectly. Green (13 points, 12 rebounds, eight assists) moved the ball on offense and protected the rim expertly against Houston's small unit. Together that lineup, which only logged 27 minutes together during the regular season, matches up very well against any five guys the Rockets want to play when they are without Howard (seven points, 13 rebounds) thanks to its length and interchangeability.
In Game 1, Golden State's small lineup was plus-15 in 12 minutes, and Kerr would be a fool not to go back to that well. "When we go 'small,' it's not necessarily small," Livingston pointed out. "We have guys who can guard lots of positions. ... We're able to cover a lot of ground defensively, switch, and help each other out."
The second half produced a satisfying duel between Curry (34 points, six rebounds, five assists) and MVP runner-up James Harden (28 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists), but the terms of that showdown seemed to favor Golden State. Curry shook free from Terry and Prigioni time and again. Harden, meanwhile, welcomed an increased portion of the offensive responsibility with great success, turning to his ballet and tap-dancing skills to set up his shots against Thompson's tight marking. "He's hitting tough, contested fall-away twos," Kerr said. "There's not a lot you can do." Harden was brilliant, and yet it still wasn't enough to keep Golden State from building a double-digit second-half lead.
These developments raised an unavoidable question: How will Houston keep up if Harden is ever less than excellent? Howard, given his ability to provide offensive balance and serve as a rim-punishing threat, stands as Houston's best answer to that question.
[daily_cut.NBA]Indeed, the Rockets' hopes in this series are now totally reliant upon Howard's health. Already stretched by injuries to Patrick Beverley and Donatas Motiejunas, Houston just isn't in position to cope with another major loss at this stage of the postseason, even if it was able to make due without Howard for long stretches of the regular season. His absence was felt everywhere: offense, defense, and on the glass. When Howard sat for the game's final 11 minutes, Golden State capitalized with a host of extended possessions, second-chance points, and high-percentage looks off cuts.
Howard told reporters after Game 1 that the injury was "very painful," and it's unclear how healthy he will be for Game 2 on Thursday. Rockets coach Kevin McHale told reporters that he didn't know Howard's precise status, and that an update would come after further evaluation on Wednesday. Howard labored at times before he left the game, and his left knee was wrapped in ice down the stretch. (Howard missed time earlier this season after receiving injections in his right knee back in February.)
"I hope Dwight is healthy and we can stay big," McHale said. "I like us when we play big. We didn't have that option tonight. ... We've got to win the paint and we've got to win the boards for us to win games."
Despite a slow start, Golden State proved again in Game 1 that it is fully comfortable and absolutely lethal when the lineups downsize. The speed and thrust of the Warriors' second-quarter flurry set the terms for the rest of the series. If Howard returns to form, Houston still has a chance. If Howard remains limited, Houston is in dire straits.
Without Howard at or near total mobility, the Rockets simply can't cover up their persistent leaks at the point guard position. Without Howard helping dictate the game flow, Golden State can get what it wants too easily and in too many different ways. If the series stays small because Howard is limited or sidelined, the Rockets are stuck bracing for more of the Warriors' floods.