HOUSTON – The Houston Rockets have plenty of things to fix after squandering their coveted home-court advantage in the Western Conference finals.
Tops on their list: limiting turnovers, eliminating open 3s and making things tougher on the Golden State Warriors – particularly Kevin Durant.
“Kevin Durant and (Stephen) Curry, they’re good. So they’re going to make” shots, Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Our head can’t explode that they go one-on-one and make shots … you have to be able to absorb some of their greatness; at the same time, don’t make the mental errors that we did. That would accumulate for 15, 20 points, and that’s the difference in the game.”
Some almost sounds like the Rockets will have to play almost perfect beat the Warriors. They wouldn’t go as far as to say that, but James Harden, who scored 41 in Game 1, did say that at this level the margin for error gets razor thin.
“It’s the (conference) finals,” he said. “There’s four teams here for a reason. Obviously these four teams have done great things all year. You can’t make the same mental mistakes like you’re in a regular season.”
There were plenty of Rockets miscues in Game 1.
They coughed up the ball 13 times on Monday and the Warriors outscored the Rockets 18-3 on fast break points en route to a 119-106 victory. Klay Thompson scored 28 points and made 6 of 15 3-point attempts on a night Harden lamented that about 10 of those looks were wide-open. Thompson’s performance came on top of Durant scoring 37 points, mostly by knocking down long 2’s when he was matched up against smaller defenders.
That said, what the Rockets won’t do in Game 2 on Wednesday night is change what they’ve done all year and what led to them winning a franchise-record 65 games in the regular season to earn the top-seed.
“We are who we are, and we’re pretty good at it,” D’Antoni said. “We can’t get off who we are. Embrace it. Just be a better (version) of who we are and don’t worry if somebody else solves the puzzle a different way … we’ve got to play at our strengths.”
For the defending champion Warriors, they masterfully answered the challenge of opening a playoff series on the road for the first time since 2014. After falling behind by nine points early in front of a raucous Houston crowd, they settled down and led for most of the second half en route to the victory.
But playing in a franchise-record fourth straight conference finals, the Warriors know that they can’t let up after wrestling homecourt advantage away from the Rockets.
“That was a big win. We’re not going to downplay it,” Thompson said. “But we’re not satisfied. We have a golden opportunity tomorrow to take a good lead. You have to have a short memory in the playoffs, because the next game will come at you fast, and it might feel good to win, but it’s a seven-game series for a reason.”
Now they believe they’re up for an even bigger test in Game 2, with the Rockets desperate not to head to Oakland in a 0-2 hole. But they insist they won’t approach this game any differently than they did the opener.
“I think the game really came down to staying solid and allowing our talent to shine through,” coach Steve Kerr said. “We have so many gifted players, that as long as we’re solid with the ball, we don’t make mistakes, defend with intensity, then our talent’s going to take over.”
To counteract all of that talent, the Rockets must find a way to get more players involved offensively to provide support for Harden. Chris Paul scored 23 points on Monday, but P.J. Tucker and Trevor Ariza, who combined to average almost 18 points in Houston’s first 10 postseason games, managed just nine points combined in Game 1.
Part of the struggles came from Ariza getting into foul trouble early, picking up his fifth foul with about 10 minutes left in the third quarter. While the Rockets still expect Durant to get his points, they hope Ariza will be able to stay on the floor more on Wednesday to try and make him work harder for them.
The Rockets insist that they aren’t going to let the disappointment of their loss in the opener bleed into Game 2. Harden took it upon himself to check in with his teammates after Game 1, calling them up to see if they had their heads in the right place and remind them that there’s a lot more to play for.
“I wanted to make sure that they’re good and they’re in a good place,” he said. “All the guys seem happy and motivated. So we watch film, we can correct some things, and (Wednesday) we should be better.”