The Houston Rockets weren’t supposed to take Tuesday’s Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors. On their home court, the Warriors were approximately 10-point favorites according to most oddsmakers and Houston’s Dwight Howard hardly played in the second half due with a bruised left knee.
But there the Rockets were all game long, opening up a 16-point lead in the first half and, after falling behind by 11 with two minutes to go in the game, closing the gap to two with 14 seconds left before eventually falling short in a 110-106 defeat.
If there’s such a thing as a moral victory in a playoff loss, Houston can claim just that after Game 1.
The Rockets started the contest aggressive in transition and found ways to consistently get to the hole, led by Howard, Josh Smith and Trevor Ariza. The squad finished with 20 points in the paint in the first quarter. On the other end, their post defense was stingy and Houston gravitated to all defensive rebounds.
By the middle of the second quarter, Golden State had barely any points outside of three-pointers and the Rockets led 49-33.
Then came one of the Warriors’ patented offensive barrages.
After center Andrew Bogut received his third foul, Golden State switched to an extremely small lineup with Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green as the two posts. This group, led by reserve guard Shaun Livingston, caused all sorts of problems for Houston with its quickness, forced six turnovers in a seven-minute span and went on a 25-6 run to close the half. The Rockets were getting killed in transition and their offensive pace was lost as they repeatedly had to bring the ball out from underneath the basket.
In the second half, it was all about the battle between the MVP candidates.
Stephen Curry, the Warriors’ winner of the award, turned in 21 points after the intermission while James Harden, the Rockets’ runner-up, also put in 21 in the same time frame. Their full-game stat lines certainly lived up to the vast number of votes they garnered for the NBA’s most prestigious award.
Curry: 34 points (13-of-22 shooting), five rebounds, six assists and two steals
Harden: 28 points (11-of-20 shooting), 11 rebounds, nine assists and five steals
Both also produced sick end-of-quarter buzzer-beaters:
When it came down to it, however, Houston’s defense folded under the pressure down the stretch and gave up several layups and three-pointers due to off-ball lapses while the Warriors amended their early-game interior defensive problems with great rim protection, led by Green.
Ariza’s steal and clutch three-pointer to close the deficit to 108-106 made things interesting near the end, but Curry’s free throw shooting made sure Houston wouldn’t come all the way back.
Before this series, I said Josh Smith’s play would be the X-factor for Houston, and that was validated after Game 1. Smith played smart and within his strengths on both ends of the court early in the first half in getting Houston a lead, but he caused the Rockets trouble late in the game when he started to force shots and passes that weren’t there.
He ended with a Smoove-esque line of 17 points (6-of-16 shooting), seven rebounds, five assists, three blocks and three turnovers in 27 minutes.
Other than Smith, Howard will be someone to watch for the rest of the series. He seemed to be giving the Warriors’ big men trouble in the first quarter before injuring his knee:
Whenever he took the floor the rest of the game, he looked limited athletically and obviously ended up sitting for good very early in the fourth quarter.
But keep your head up, Rockets fans. Your squad looked very competitive and should continue to stay that way, especially if Howard returns to his normal self and Smith plays at or near his potential.