No one said this was going to be easy.
Oh, wait. Scratch that. They did.
Such overwhelming favorites are the Warriors in this Western Conference Finals that you wondered if the Rockets would bother showing up when the series opened Tuesday night at Oracle Arena.
Those thoughts lasted until about midway through the second quarter as the Rockets built a 16-point lead, only to see the Warriors surge to a 110-106 victory in Game 1.
This was not vintage Golden State a la Game 6 against Memphis but a version we’ve seen numerous times, especially at home. Get off to a slow start, mount a furious comeback by hitting dazzling shots and forcing numerous turnovers, then ride the emotion of a crowd frothing with energy from the Warriors’ deepest playoff run since 1976.
“It’s basketball — you’re not always going to be on your A game to start games. You’d like to be but that’s not the way it works,” said league MVP Stephen Curry, who scored a game-high 34 points.
“We don’t want to be in the hole. That’s not how we envisioned this game going. But this team fights. We always fight back.”
What’s interesting about the Warriors is how they fight back, and in the most unexpected of fashions.
Even with the other team has them in an arm bar, Golden State can reverse the hold faster than Bret Harte.
Houston’s main (and perhaps only) matchup advantage in this series is the size and athleticism of its big men.
The Warriors don’t have an answer for Dwight Howard, who is too nimble for the lumbering Andrew Bogut. Lob the ball up for Howard anywhere near the rim or let him get in position for a putback, and it’s goodnight Gracie.
Early on the Rockets exploited that advantage, scoring 20 of their 31 first-quarter points in the paint. And it wasn’t just Howard. James Harden, Josh Smith and Trevor Ariza got any shot they felt like, too.
Even when Howard limped off the court with a knee injury, Houston kept increasing its lead. When he returned later — looking not nearly as spry as before — the Rockets surged ahead by as many as 16.
So when Bogut picked up his third foul (in seven minutes of playing time) with 7:29 left in the first half and Houston ahead 47-33, it looked like the Warriors were in deep do-do.
Nope. Guess again.
Taking a page from Don Nelson’s Warriors, coach Steve Kerr deployed his small lineup with the 6-foot-8 (on his tippy toes) Draymond Green at center joined by Harrison Barnes, Shaun Livingston, Klay Thompson and Curry.
Golden State closed the first half with a 25-6 run with all but two of the points coming after Bogut’s exit. The small lineup didn’t hurt the Warriors defensively, either, with Houston shooting 20% and committing six turnovers during the same span.
“We were not faring very well, and generally speaking that lineup gives us a lot of energy,” Kerr said. “We get good offensive punch because of floor spacing and we get the ball moving.”
Kerr had to re-insert his small lineup in the fourth quarter when Harden started scoring just about every trip downcourt. The MVP runner-up to Curry had 22 of his 28 in the second half, despite the best efforts of Thompson.
Houston actually rallied to force a 97-97 tie until the Warriors surged ahead with a 9-0 run. Barnes scored the first points off an inbounds pass before Curry took over with two layups and a corner 3.
It was the seventh time this season Golden State has won a game in which it trailed by as many as 15 points. No other NBA team can say that.
With a four-point loss in the league’s toughest environment, the Rockets showed they’re deserving of more respect than they’re getting in most quarters.
But will it ultimately matter? Not if the Warriors’ small lineup keeps coming up huge.
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
Golden State 1, Houston 0
▪ May 19: Golden State 110, Houston 106
▪ May 21: Houston at Golden State, 6 p.m.
▪ May 23: Golden State at Houston, 6 p.m.
▪ May 25: Golden State at Houston, 6 p.m.
▪ x-May 27: Houston at Golden State, 6 p.m.
▪ x-May 29: Golden State at Houston, 6 p.m.
▪ x-May 31: Houston at Golden State, 6 p.m.