HOUSTON — It feels like a million years ago now — especially in light of the Golden State Warriors‘ dominating 119-106 win over the Houston Rockets in Game 1 of these Western Conference finals on Monday night — but there was a point late in the regular season when the Warriors were genuinely worried this group just might not be able to rediscover its groove when the time came.
“Yeah,” general manager Bob Myers told ESPN after Monday’s game. “Was I worried? My first thought was, ‘Yes.’ But my second thought was, ‘Have they let us down yet?'”
Myers said he and head coach Steve Kerr talked about Golden State’s sputtering finish to the regular season, when they lost 10 of their last 17 games, and decided, “‘We have to give them the benefit of the doubt. They’ve earned that.'”
That was a month ago. Since then, the Warriors have locked in at a level Kerr compared to their first championship season, in 2015. The regular season was what they’d been telling us it was all along — a prelude to the only part of the season that really matters to a team trying to advance to its fourth straight NBA Finals.
Why push so hard for home-court advantage in the regular season when you can steal it back in 48 minutes like the Warriors did Monday night?
“It’s the best time of year. Playing for all the marbles, we’re trying to win a championship; there’s no reason not to lock in,” Warriors All-Star Draymond Green told ESPN. “The further you get along, the better it gets.”
And how does that compare to the regular season?
“Felt like an eternity,” Green said with a smirk. “A f–ing eternity.”
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The best thing for this group, Green said, may have been to start on the road with the challenge of wrestling back home-court advantage and reasserting their superiority over a Houston team that outclassed them in the regular season and made no secret of its focus on earning the four home games for this exact series.
“I think you need different challenges in life,” Green said. “You get the same thing over and over, you tend to take it for granted. It’s a completely different feel for us.”
That focus has been apparent throughout the playoffs, as the Warriors led all teams in defensive rating and were virtually tied with the Rockets and Toronto Raptors for the best offensive rating among playoff teams.
On Monday morning, the Golden State coaches gave the players a choice of whether or not to hold a shootaround. With nearly a week between the end of the last series and the start of the conference finals, there wasn’t much more to cover in preparation. But the players voted unanimously to hold shootaround anyway.
“I think they’re genuinely excited right now,” Myers said. “They have great respect for Houston. We’re on the road, so it’s natural for them to engage like that.”
There are a lot of reasons Golden State won Game 1:
Kevin Durant was brilliant, scoring 37 points on 14-for-27 shooting.
The Warriors forced the Rockets into three shot-clock violations and 19 shots with just five left in shot clock.
A devastating third-quarter push initiated by the so-called “Hamptons 5” of Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala that turned a tie game at halftime into a 13-point lead.
The Hamptons 5 lineup outscored Houston 22-14 on 9-for-11 shooting from the field with six assists and just one turnover in seven third-quarter minutes.
But mostly, the Warriors won because they imposed their style and pace on the game, forcing Houston into an endless stream of isolation, one-on-one plays.
The Rockets don’t always mind that, as Coach Mike D’Antoni says often he thinks James Harden is the best one-on-one player in the league. And Monday night, the presumptive MVP was brilliant in that role again, scoring 41 points on 14-of-24 shooting.
But that’s not the type of offense D’Antoni changed basketball with back in his time with the Phoenix Suns. No, those Suns shared the ball like the modern-day Warriors do.
What you saw from D’Antoni’s Rockets on Monday night was isolation basketball taken to another level. According to Second Spectrum, Houston had 45 isolation plays in Game 1. That is the most by any team in any game — regular season or playoffs — over the past five seasons and more than double what they averaged in the regular season (22, first in the NBA).
Harden accounted for 26 of the isolation plays, nearly nine more than he averaged in the regular season.
Some of that, of course, is the Golden State defense, which has a way of forcing teams into giving into their worst tendencies. The Rockets are so talented in the one-on-one game that it’s easy for them to rely on it when the offense breaks down amid endless switching, as the Warriors did in Game 1.
But deep down, D’Antoni has to know his team can’t win a seven-game series against the Warriors playing that much one-on-one ball.
“I’m going to talk to him. He needs about 55 [points] next time,” D’Antoni sarcastically joked of Harden after Monday night. “I’ll just have to tell him that.”
For Houston to get back in this series, Harden has to be as good as he was in Game 1 and find ways to elevate his teammates. Outside of Harden and Chris Paul (who combined for 64 points on 54 percent shooting), the rest of the team had just 42 points on 39 percent shooting.
“We’re all in this together,” Harden said. “It doesn’t matter who has a bad game or who is missing shots. Keep shooting your shot and being aggressive. We got this far doing that and having that mindset. So we’re just going to continue it.”