Houston Rockets can't solve Kevin Durant dilemma in Game 1

Reigning Finals MVP makes presence felt against Harden, Houston

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

HOUSTON — The Toyota Center was not his house. The “MVP” chants that cascaded from the seats weren’t reserved for him. The stage of this Western Conference finals opener wasn’t specifically designed for him on this floor, yet Kevin Durant took ownership anyway. Of all of it, actually.

He upstaged James Harden, here in this city, on a night where both stars appeared unstoppable at times, but it was more than that. Durant was a handful for the Houston Rockets, and gave his coach an earful after being pulled for a well-deserved rest, and totally claimed Game 1 for the Golden State Warriors.

And now there’s a more important issue for the Rockets: Will the rest of this series belong to Durant as well?

This was the Rockets’ worst nightmare — losing home-court advantage after working so hard to clinch it, all while looking helpless and clueless against Durant in the process. He punished them early and often no matter who was in his face, hitting a few tough shots, some tougher shots and shots that you shouldn’t try at home.

“He’s seven feet and falling away,” said Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni in disbelief.

In other words, a routine day for KD and a rotten one for the poor defender standing in his way.

Durant was good for 37 points, less than Harden’s 41 but more impactful and damaging overall. His mid-range game was especially devastating and evidence that Durant is money from any spot on the floor; of his 14 baskets, only three were made from deep.

“I was just trying to be aggressive when I had the ball and be forceful when I had the ball,” Durant said. “I was able to knock down a few.”

How do you hold a player with his wingspan, high release point and shooting range and accuracy in check … particularly when he’s three wins from a second straight NBA Finals trip? That is a challenge for anyone for sure, but the Rockets don’t appear to have a KD stopper on the roster. And if they do, he didn’t suit up Monday.

Smaller players such as Trevor Ariza and PJ Tucker must deal with Durant’s height advantage. Bigger players like Clint Capela must cope with Durant’s quickness and swoop-ability while risking being pulled away from the rim because of Durant’s shooting range.

“We like to keep the ball moving but Kevin is the ultimate luxury because a play can break down and you just throw him the ball,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “He can get you a bucket as well as anybody on Earth.”

The last time Durant looked this locked in for a game of some magnitude was last June in the NBA Finals, when he puzzled the Cavs with pull-up 3-pointers on the run. Any adjustment the Rockets make for Game 2 must also consider that any double-team thrown in Durant’s direction will give open looks to Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry. And so: shall it be death by drowning or poisoning?

Those are always the choices when game-planning for a team with multiple weapons like the Warriors (actually, no other team like them exists in the NBA). In one sense, Durant gave the Rockets less to think about. He just took it upon himself to set the tone and trigger the two runs that sealed Game 1 for Golden State, getting 13 in the third quarter when an otherwise close game flipped.

Durant was so hell-bent on finishing off the Rockets and stealing their precious home-court advantage — along with their soul — that he snorted in Kerr’s direction when pulled late in the third. He wasn’t wrong though: with KD benched, the Rockets closed within five points.

“Why?” Durant asked. Then again, with attitude: “Why?”

Later, Kerr smiled and said: “Kevin’s never happy when he comes out of the game, no matter when I take him out. Even in the preseason he’s upset if I take him out. He wasn’t thrilled and I probably should’ve left him in … he was going pretty well. They went on a quick run but he came back in and got us on track again.”

Durant immediately swished a jumper, and then another basket was followed with Durant drawing a charge on Eric Gordon. With that, first blood in this series was drawn by the Warriors.

“I wanted to stay in the game, but the best part of it is I trust coach and we can move past those conversations pretty quick,” Durant said.

Can they move past the Rockets just as quickly? This series gave the appearance of a possible epic, and it still might be just that, except the opener fizzled in the Rockets’ face. Just like that, the home-court advantage now belongs to the Warriors, and this highly-anticipated series will get a gut-punch Wednesday if Golden State takes a pair in Houston.

The bad news for the Rockets is the Warriors aren’t bored anymore — that was so two weeks ago. Once Curry returned from his knee injury and the Warriors crept closer to the West finals, the sense of urgency provided Golden State its needed face-slap. So, no, the Rockets aren’t catching them off guard. The Warriors are very much on guard and focused on keeping the Larry O’Brien trophy.

That’s why Draymond Green received a technical less than two minutes into the game and then flirted with going nuts before the first quarter buzzer. He was that wired.

“I think I was a bit overzealous, a bit amped up but I’d rather be that any day than coming out flat,” he said. “I’ll take that and live with the results.”

That’s also why the Warriors rallied twice after falling behind early, stealing any momentum or hope the Rockets had.

Houston had Harden, and he was indeed MVP-worthy, drilling step-back jumpers and chopping up the Warriors near the rim, where he dropped layups or drew fouls. Yet in typical Harden fashion, he finished with 41 points … and a minus-7 in Game 1.

Still, this game and this result were due largely to Durant and the inability of the Rockets to do anything with him.

“I think my favorite moment was the one where he drove the baseline and he rose up over two guys,” Green said. “Like, he was flying and leaning out of bounds. Kind of a little stick shot. They played great defense on that play, so for him to still hit that shot, it was tough.”

Again, if that’s how Durant will roll, what’s Houston to do?

“He’s been doing it for so long, man,” Harden said. “He can shoot over anybody, so we’ve got to do a better job of being physical. Getting him off his spots, a better job of contesting and making it even harder for him.”

Basically, the Rockets plan to do what nobody has done since Durant came to the Warriors: Stop him in the postseason. He averaged 28.5 points on 55 percent shooting (44 from deep) last season. He’s at 28 and 49 percent through nine games in the 2018 playoffs.

With all due respect to the Rockets, Durant owns the spring, this series so far and there’s no foreclosure in sight.

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Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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