First punch landed
Momentum shift: Durant key in beating top seed and ex-teammate Harden
HOUSTON — Late in the third quarter Monday night, after draining a 16-foot pull-up jumper to give the Warriors a 13-point lead, Warriors forward Kevin Durant was subbed out for Shaun Livingston. As Durant stomped to the bench, he glanced at head coach Steve Kerr and asked, “Why?”
Fifty seconds later, after the Rockets cut their deficit to single digits, Durant checked back into the game to a chorus of boos. It was a prophetic response: With Durant leading the way, Golden State retook control for a 119-106 win over the Rockets in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
“Kevin’s never happy when he comes out of the game, no matter when I take him out,” Kerr said. “Even in the preseason, he’s upset if I take him out.”
In 40 minutes, Durant had 37 points on 14for-27 shooting to outduel his former teammate, Houston guard James Harden, who had 41 points and seven assists in defeat. The Rockets now have less than 48 hours to figure out an answer for Golden State’s up-tempo, movementheavy attack.
Durant set an aggressive tone, and Klay
Thompson (28 points), Stephen Curry (18 points, eight assists) and Draymond Green (nine rebounds, nine assists, two blocks) also did their part. The Warriors finished the night shooting 52.5 percent from the field, including 13-for-33 from three-point range.
It didn’t help Harden that Clint Capela attempted only seven shots and Chris Paul was kept to 23 points six days after his 41-point masterpiece in Game 5 of the conference semifinals against Utah. Instead of bemoaning Durant’s memorable night, Houston head coach Mike D’Antoni pinned the loss on his team’s missed layups and unnecessary turnovers.
“He’s one of the best scorers ever, right?” D’Antoni said of Durant. “I thought he was extremely good.”
Durant and Harden credit each other for their emergence as MVP-caliber players. For three seasons early in their careers, the then-teammates went head to head during scrimmages at a converted roller rink that housed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s practice facility.
During those sessions, when Harden often led an unheralded bench mob to wins over Durant, Russell Westbrook and the rest of the Thunder’s starters, Durant knew Harden was destined for greatness. Four months after those two college-age phenoms helped lead Oklahoma City to the 2012 NBA Finals, Harden’s contract negotiations with the Thunder stalled.
Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti, worried that he couldn’t get a deal done before the looming extension deadline, traded Harden to Houston. Durant never reached the Finals again in his four remaining seasons with the Thunder. Now, with Harden poised to win his first MVP award, Durant is intent on outdoing the rival he considers one of his closest friends.
Unlike New Orleans, which had little answer for Durant as it lost to the Warriors in
five games in the conference semifinals, Houston boasts several wing defenders — Luc Mbah a Moute, P.J. Tucker, Trevor Ariza — seemingly capable of at least making life difficult for the nine-time All-Star. The problem is that there is no way to stop Durant and his 7-foot wingspan when he is nailing fade-away jumpers.
Harden repeatedly made highlight-worthy plays, only for Durant to nail an off-kilter shot on the other end. It was playoff basketball at its best: After at least seven months of anticipation for a Golden State-Houston showdown in the conference finals, there were extended stretches of Game 1 in which it felt like a game of one-on-one that happened to have 10 players on the court.
After the Rockets inched within four points early in the fourth, the Warriors used a 13-4 run to create distance. Midway through the period, after watching Durant hit a three-pointer to give the Warriors a 13-point lead, Harden shook his head in disgust. As a sellout Toyota Center crowd began to quiet, the Warriors strung together enough stops to ensure that the Rockets wouldn’t seriously threaten.
In video review Tuesday, Houston won’t fret over the numerous seemingly impossible shots that Durant drained over outstretched arms of his defenders. It can only hope that Kerr will take him out of the game more often.
“I wanted to stay in the game at that point,” Durant said of his protests to Kerr for pulling him late in the third quarter. “I’m glad we got the ‘W,’ though.”
“He’s one of the best scorers ever, right? I thought he was extremely good.” Mike D’Antoni, Rockets coach, on the Warriors’ Kevin Durant
Rockets center Clint Capela (center) wrestles for a rebound between the Warriors’ Kevon Looney (left), Draymond Green and Kevin Durant in the second half.
Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) drives while defended by Rockets guard Chris Paul, who’s all of 6 feet, during the first half.
Warriors guard Stephen Curry hit a number of floaters and layups en route to 18 points, making just one three-pointer.
The bench reacts after a scoring play in the second half of the Warriors’ Game 1 victory over the Rockets at Toyota Center.