If this Warriors team to date has been a work of art, the negative space popped its loudest on Monday night. Without Stephen Curry at the center of the work, there came a brief sliver of trepidation. Given what we know about the Rockets, this is a first-round series that lacks in on-court theatrics pertaining to things like “final score.”
As it went, the final score was 115–106, no Curry, no problems, even as the Rockets hung around for much of the game. It never felt like Houston was actually that close, mostly because Golden State never panicked, led almost the entire game, and also because during a TV interview, Andre Iguodala likened the tenor of the first half to “playing a scrimmage in practice,” which, well, yeah.
Still missing you
What did the Warriors do in the three games Curry missed to injury this season? They went 2–1, getting blown out in Dallas Dec. 30, rallying to beat Houston by four the next night, and also edging Atlanta by four on March 2, thanks to a now-famous, splayed-out three from the right wing by Draymond Green. The precedent was mostly positive, and the on-court product looked mostly like it should have.
On normal nights when Steph hits the bench, Golden State shifts into a more patient five-man unit that moves the ball in the half-court and relies mostly on motion and improvisation. So, when he doesn’t play at all, this becomes the greater approach. Can this team go toe-to-toe with the Spurs, Thunder or Clippers for seven games? Dubious. But on most nights, that team is better than the Rockets. The team is built for Curry, and without him they’re still a very good team, essentially comprised of elite role players.
The Warriors are who we thought they were
“Essentially” is the key word here. Green is a role player, but he’s one who got so impossibly good at his role that it turned him into a star. He came two assists short of a triple double (12 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists) and was up to his usual business as a catalyst on both ends. Klay Thompson is one of the most prolific shooters ever, and he’s also become especially good at attacking closeouts. He made 15 of a game-high 16 free throws on his way to 34 points and a less eye-popping 8-of-20 from the floor. He can certainly carry an offense, but he’s a guy that has to be put in those spots. So without Curry to draw all the attention, the Warriors are forced to optimize those guys in different ways, with more cuts, curls and handoffs than usual and less margin for error from everyone else.
Everyone else, meaning Iguodala, Andrew Bogut and Shaun Livingston, was incredibly good. Harrison Barnes was not, but the overall balance was such that it all worked anyway. After the Rockets tried hacking Festus Ezeli early, Steve Kerr left him on the bench for the rest of the game. The illustrious Marreese Speights stepped up in his place, and wound up draining one of the biggest shots of the night, a corner three at the end of the third quarter to restore levity to Oracle Arena following a James Harden three. That would have been the most deflating moment of the night if not for ...
J.B. Bickerstaff’s fourth-quarter tech
It was a bad day for J.B. Bickerstaff, who rode a team bus to the arena that got stuck in Bay Area traffic and arrived late, then watched a wavering effort from a veteran team. The second part would have been inexplicable, if we hadn’t seen 83 games of it already. Bickerstaff aired out all his slow-burning frustrations midway through the fourth with his team already down eight, ceding a double-digit lead in the midst of a 10–1 Warriors run.
Still, you can’t put it all on the coach. In spite of the fact the Rockets kept things close most of the time, it’s tough to find a single glowing thing to say. James Harden finished with 28 points (including 13 free throws) and 11 assists, but nobody else consistently hit shots. There was a random early Josh Smith hot streak and a late bout of Jason Terry hero ball. And there was your nightly dose of grime-guard Patrick Beverley, who after Bickerstaff drew the aforementioned tech, for some reason felt like defending a null foul shot by Thompson.
All that, and we didn’t even get a substantial dose of Donatas Motiejunas, who was frighteningly angry for most of Game 1, beyond the first five minutes.
Whither Dwight Howard?
Dwight Howard finished as a minus-22, with 12 points, 10 rebounds, six fouls and a somewhat-indifferent look on his face in 35 minutes. This was made more glaring by the fact that Bogut, frequently his matchup, was a plus-23 on the night. He was not the only Rocket who labored through parts of the game, but with his free agency upcoming, his disposition will be the most dissected one.
To dive into that briefly, Howard turns 31 in December. He’s always averaged a double double, but this season posted his fewest scoring totals and shot attempts since his rookie year. Howard did shoot a career-high from the floot, but hit a career low 48.9% of his free throws. He is still a productive player and does provide size around the rim. It’s reasonable to think he can produce for a couple more years. Potential changes to the league’s hacking rules might make Howard’s weaknesses easier to digest. But assuming he opts out, it’ll be curious to see who comes calling and where the price tag sits.
The Warriors take a two-game lead back to Texas. Winning sans Curry is a luxury that won’t last past the first round, but knowing they can comfortably cut it without him certainly helps matters. Should they keep resting him until the Rockets figure something out? They might have just bought themselves the option. Check back Thursday.