First punch landed

Mo­men­tum shift: Du­rant key in beat­ing top seed and ex-team­mate Har­den

San Francisco Chronicle - - SPORTING GREEN - By Con­nor Le­tourneau

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

Michael Cia­glo / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Rock­ets cen­ter Clint Capela (cen­ter) wres­tles for a re­bound be­tween the War­riors’ Kevon Looney (left), Dray­mond Green and Kevin Du­rant in the sec­ond half.

Pho­tos by Car­los Avila Gon­za­lez / The Chron­i­cle

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.

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