The Warriors waited 39 years for this. That’s almost four decades worth of sitting, watching, stewing, pining, longing, envying, etc., while other Western Conference franchises moved within four victories of the NBA Finals.
So maybe that explains, well, what happened Tuesday night in Oracle Arena.
While the Rockets began the best-of-seven series with a sprint, the heavily favored Warriors played a sedate session of chess. They allowed the visitors to control the lane, launch wide-open jumpers, swipe passes and grab offensive rebounds, and throw a number of alley-oops for dunks before Dwight Howard left the game in the third quarter with a sore left knee.
That 16-point second-quarter deficit wasn’t a mirage; it was a kick to the stomach. Those boos weren’t bountiful, but they were audible. The Golden State team that set a variety of league and franchise records during a nearly glitch-free season seemed stunned by their opponent’s force, until as coach Steve Kerr noted afterward, “We finally realized it was the Western Conference finals.”
Once the Warriors became fully engaged, the snoozefest transitioned into a wildly entertaining event that included the predictable flurries and individual outbursts from Most Valuable Player Steph Curry and the MVP runner-up James Harden.
As usual, Curry dazzled with his crossovers, threes from the corners, crafty drives and, most importantly, an impeccable sense of timing. With the score tied 97-97, he contributed 12 of his game-high 34 points and had a rebound and steal in the final five minutes.
Harden was even more spectacular. With the Warriors seemingly in control, Harden resisted with step-back jumpers, hard drives to the basket, rebounds, assists, steals and finished one assist shy of a triple double. What he didn’t have, though, during the critical closing stretch was the presence of his athletic center, who missed 41 games during the season with an injury to his other knee.
“He’s (Howard) our top rebounder,” said a glum Rockets coach Kevin McHale, adding he had no update on his center’s status. “He puts pressure on the paint. He protects the paint. He’s just a helluva basketball player, and hopefully, he’ll be better.”
If not? The series will be reduced to the Rockets’ small ball vs. the Warriors’ small ball, and given Golden State’s superior depth, defense and versatility, that long-awaited trip to the championship series looms as an increasing reality.
A few other takeaways from Tuesday night include the following:
▪ Warriors backup guard Shaun Livingston, who has played for 10 NBA teams during an injury-plagued career, earned his yearly salary with his 16-point opening half. While many of his teammates were struggling, the lanky 6-foot-7 veteran probed the lane for drives and passes, slipped underneath for rebounds and seemed to energize the building.
▪ The battle of the big men never materialized. While Howard left with the knee injury, Warriors center Andrew Bogut was tagged with two early ticky-tack fouls and was scoreless in 16 minutes.
▪ Klay Thompson converted only one of his seven threes, but he hit three field goals and had two steals during Golden State’s second-period rally.
▪ The Rockets converted only 18 of 28 free-throw attempts, with Howard and Terrence Jones shooting 1 for 4.
▪ While acknowledging the Warriors as the favorites, McHale has no affection for the underdog label. “Look, I was 17 or 18 years old and everybody told me I couldn’t play in the Big Ten,” he said. “I can’t tell you how much I could care less about what anybody says about anything. When I talk to the guys and what it takes ... it’s much more about how hard are we going to have to play? Who are we going to have to knock down on their rear end? How much are we just going to have to punch them in the mouth on this play and attack and go downhill?”
▪ Since his team won, Kerr gets the final word. “It’s great, it’s fantastic,” he said, referring to his club’s historic season and first conference finals appearance since 1976. “I’m not going to be one of those guys who says we don’t care about that. You have to enjoy all this stuff. We’ve had so many milestones this year. We haven’t had an MVP in forever. We had the best record in the league. We’re going to have all these different awards, Klay was an All-Star, Steph was an All-Star. This was important stuff.”