HOUSTON -- Months of building up the hard shell required to wade this deep into the NBA’s merciless playoff waters can evaporate in a snap.
One bad rotation, followed by a missed layup on the back of yet another dagger from the other team and even a mighty, 65-win juggernaut can see it all unravel.
The Houston Rockets know the feeling now, after living through it on what could turn out to be the biggest night of the best (regular) season in the history of the franchise.
They invited the Golden State Warriors in, dared to beat the reigning NBA champions at their own game in these Western Conference finals with an emphatic win ... and came up woefully short of that goal in Game 1 of the series.
The home-court advantage they worked for all throughout a brilliant season is gone.
The comfort the Rockets were provided after securing a 2-1 regular-season record against the Warriors was blown away in just four quarters.
Whatever aura they thought they owned heading into the Toyota Center Monday night for Game 1, they shed long before the final seconds of their decisive 119-106 loss to the Warriors.
It looked good early, when James Harden had the Rockets rolling to a nine-point lead in the frenzied opening minutes. But Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Stephen Curry and Co. -- making their fourth straight appearance in the conference finals -- didn't fold at the first sign of danger.
“You’re not going to just come in and knock them out,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “I mean, there’s just too many times we had mental lapses. We either didn’t switch properly or we didn’t switch hard enough. We turned the ball over little too much. Every time we missed a layup, which we missed a lot of layups, they ran out.
“They’re really devastating. We’ve got to make layups, don’t turn it over and do a little bit better job of mentally just staying up on people.”
The fact that they were starting this series away from the friendly confines of Oracle Arena for the first time during their recent run did nothing to shake their belief in themselves. And if there is anything that is clear after just four wild quarters of this most anticipated series, it’s that the Warriors’ collective confidence is far superior to the artificial skin the Rockets wrapped themselves in leading up to the opening round of this heavyweight fight.
They’re obviously champions for a reason. If we want to beat them, we have to be mentally sharper."
Harden played inspired, for most of his 35 minutes, finishing with a game-high 41 points and seven assists. Chris Paul’s 23 points, 11 rebounds and three assists also look good on paper.
But it wasn’t enough. It was nowhere near enough to offset the Rockets’ self-inflicted mistakes or the fury the Warriors can rain down on their opponents this time of year.
“They’re obviously champions for a reason,” D’Antoni said. “If we want to beat them, we have to be mentally sharper. KD, he’s tough. Obviously, he was on tonight. Hey, you can live with that. But you can’t live with that and then make mental mistakes, and that's what we do. The combination of the two was devastating.”
Durant was bent on devastation, torching an assortment of Rockets defenders for his 37 points. Thompson drilled the Rockets for 28 points of his own, his 15 attempts 3-point attempts serving as a more demoralizing dagger for a Rockets defense designed to limit them. With so much attention on that pair of players, the Rockets seemed to lose their defensive focus on basically everyone else.
“Defensively, we’ve got to be better,” Paul said. “You know it’s funny, I got caught helping a couple times in the first half and I think Nick Young hit three (3-pointers) off those plays. Some games, some series, you may make those mistakes and guys don’t make the shots. But tonight, every time we did it, they made the shot. They make you pay when you make mistakes.”
Just to be clear about what kind of armor the Warriors travel with these days, they’ve won a game on the road in 18 consecutive playoff series. That means it started well before the Durant era.
As much as this series is about the back-and-forth between Durant and Harden (who reached The Finals as teammates on the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012), it’s about Curry, Thompson, Green and 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala.
Those are the other four members of the Warriors’ "Hamptons Five” lineup that started Game 1, that withstood everything the Rockets threw at them Monday and then beat Houston down the stretch in the series-opener.
“They’re a good team,” Eric Gordon said. "They’ve been playing together, they know who they are. They’ve been to four straight Western Conference finals. We just got to be a little better.”
The Rockets’ must-win game is Wednesday (9 ET, TNT). The pressure shifts to a Game 2 effort that has to be much better offensively if they want to keep pace with the Warriors. They’ll also need a much cleaner effort that doesn’t include sloppiness (the Warriors converted 16 turnovers into 17 points) and deficient defense (the Warriors shot .525 overall and .394 on 3-pointers) that was on display in Game 1.
These are all things D’Antoni believes to be correctable. And they could be. Indeed, they better be if the Rockets plan on stretching this series to the limit.
Because there is still no way to account for the experience factor, the muscle memory edge the Warriors have when it comes to recognizing the time and place to apply the ultimate pressure on an opponent that’s ready to break.
They sniffed it late in the third quarter, when the Rockets were reeling under a relentless barrage of Durant buckets. The only thing that saved them then were crucial baskets of their own from Eric Gordon and Gerald Green, and Warriors coach Steve Kerr subbing Durant out for a breather the Warriors closer did not want.
“Yeah, he wasn’t really thrilled and I probably should have left him in,” Kerr said. “Late third he was going pretty well. I knew I had to get him some rest at some point. As soon as I took him out, they went on a quick run, so he was not thrilled. But he came back in and got us back on track.”
You can toy with a team like the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round, dropping Game 3 on the road only to come back and close out the series with back-to-back wins, especially when you are clearly the superior team and own that coveted home-court advantage.
You might be able to get away with it in next round against a team like the Utah Jazz, when you lose home-court advantage in Game 2, but are are once again clearly the superior team and win three straight games to squash that challenge.
Slip up a third time, as the Rockets did Monday night, against a team that has won two of the last three Larry O’Brien trophies, a team with their sights set on a third, and … and there might not be another chance.
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