The Golden State Warriors wasted no time proving they’re the better team against the Houston Rockets in Game 1 of their first-round series.
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The Warriors didn’t claim full control of the 2015 Western Conference finals against the Rockets until Game 3, when a 35-point road win provided a one-sided certainty that had been missing from Golden State’s two previous home wins by a combined five points. This year’s rematch, by contrast, looked decided within the first six minutes on Saturday.
Golden State stormed out to an 18–6 lead midway through the first quarter of a 104–78 home victory over Houston in Game 1 of a first-round series, building a 27-point halftime lead that held up despite the loss of Stephen Curry to a tweaked right ankle.
All of the Warriors’ major presumed advantages—a more cohesive offensive attack, a far superior defense, a greater effort level, better chemistry—were evident early. Before rolling his ankle, Curry played fast and loose, sinking five three-pointers on his way to a game-high 24 points in just 20 minutes. All around Curry, and in his absence, the ball moved and moved: Golden State registered 26 assists on its 39 field goals, regularly staying ahead of Houston’s defensive rotations to set- up high-percentage looks at the rim.
The Rockets’ attack, meanwhile, was choppy and ineffective. Dwight Howard finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds, but Houston was so slow to involve him early that even Draymond Green made a point to mention it in his postgame press conference. James Harden, the league’s second-highest scorer behind Curry, managed only 17 points on 19 shots while committing six turnovers against a defense that was paying extra attention to his off-the-dribble attacks.
Interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff lamented the subsequent lack of movement during a first half that saw the Rockets score only 33 points.
“[The Warriors] had 10 eyes on the ballhandler and we didn’t move them around enough. This can’t be a one-sided game offensively,” he told reporters. “[The Warriors are] selling out to stop [Harden] driving right now. Their four man is flooding the paint.”
None of Harden’s teammates provided much help in the floor-spacing department: While Houston’s All-Star guard went 3 for 5 from deep, the rest of his squad combined to shoot just 3-of-17 on threes. Without much room to work in traffic, Harden struggled to get to the basket and never got to the free-throw line. Remarkably, Golden State held Harden without a free throw attempt for the first time in a playoff game since Game 1 of the 2012 Finals, when Harden faced the Heat as a member of the Thunder.
Lacking their bearings with Harden quiet and Howard forgotten, the Rockets alternated between looking desperate and embarrassed. Early on, Patrick Beverley hounded Curry on the dribble, leading to a brief shoving match that resulted in double technical fouls.
Rockets' Patrick Beverley scraps with Warriors' Stephen Curry pic.twitter.com/AcqrEyOoAX— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) April 16, 2016
Then, in the fourth quarter, Donatas Motiejunas took exception after Green flipped him to the floor. That sequence led to a technical on Green, but no real escalation. Both exchanges had the feeling of a team hoping to salvage some pride in the midst of a beatdown.
Warriors' Draymond Green gets technical foul after flipping Rockets' Donatas Motiejunas to the ground pic.twitter.com/HKT1QLswUi— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) April 16, 2016
The lingering intrigue from Game 1 was provided not by the on-court action or chest-to-chest theatrics, but instead the uncertainty around Curry’s ankle. After twice leaving the court to re-tape the ankle, Curry departed for good with a little more than nine minutes remaining in the third quarter. Although he told reporters after the game that he asked back in on three separate occasions, Warriors coach Steve Kerr opted to rest his point guard for the final 19-plus minutes, even as Green and Klay Thompson played deep into the fourth quarter during the blowout win.
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Kerr labeled Curry “questionable” for Game 2 against the Rockets, which is set for Oracle on Monday.
“We’re not going to let him play if theres any risk of making it worse,” he said. “Obviously we’re hoping we’re going to be in the playoffs for the next couple of months. We don’t want to take any chances.”
Curry, who played in 79 games this season and has missed a combined 13 games over the last four seasons after dealing with ankle injuries earlier in his career, intimated that the injury wouldn’t keep him sidelined.
“I don’t see a scenario where I’ll be out,” Curry said, when asked about his Game 2 status.
After pushing hard down the stretch to accumulate a record-setting 73 regular-season wins, Golden State opened the postseason portion of its title defense with a strong statement game rather than a let-up. As long as Curry’s optimistic assessment of his ankle proves accurate, Houston will be hard-pressed to take a game, much less make this a series.