Warriors forward Kevin Durant drives to the basket past the Rockets’ James Harden in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals Monday night. (David J. Phillip/AP)
HOUSTON — The Houston Rockets spent the past year using every waking moment trying to beat the Golden State Warriors.
Houston chased relentlessly after the No. 1 overall seed in the West, attempting to ensure a playoff series between these two teams would begin here. Houston spent last summer adding another perimeter creator in Chris Paul to take the scoring burden off James Harden, added defensive aces in Paul, P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute to contain Golden State’s scorers and implemented a switching defensive scheme on the opening day of training camp to counteract Golden State’s passing and offensive actions.
There is just one problem with all of that: Golden State has a player who can’t actually be guarded.
That player, Kevin Durant, ensured the Warriors began these Western Conference finals with a victory.
In a truly masterful performance, Durant finished with 37 points to lift Golden State to a 119-106 victory over Houston in Game 1 Monday night, taking everything the Rockets threw at him and casting it aside.
“When he’s like that,” Klay Thompson said, “he’s unstoppable.”
So, too, is Golden State. The result? Houston’s season now boils down to Game 2 Wednesday night. Win, and the Rockets send this series back to the Bay Area with a chance of winning it.
Lose? Well, start preparing for the Warriors to make their fourth straight NBA Finals.
It was this exact situation — a hostile road environment against a great, athletic team — that Golden State pursued Durant two summers ago to solve. Before he arrived, the Warriors were susceptible to situations in which they couldn’t run their trademark pass-and-move offensive sets, or when Stephen Curry suffered an injury, as he did in the 2016 playoffs.
With Curry still looking less than 100 percent, and with Houston presenting the greatest challenge Golden State has faced since Durant arrived in July of 2016, the Warriors needed every bit of Durant’s greatness.
And he delivered.
“This is why anybody would want him on their team,” Warriors Coach Steve Kerr said. “You think about a couple years ago, and we’re in the Finals and we couldn’t quite get over the hump. Kevin is the guy that puts you over the hump.
“I don’t know what you do to guard him. He can get any shot he wants.”
It was precisely that ability to get any shot he wants – no matter what defender was draped onto him – that was the difference in this game. Yes, Durant had help, in the form of 28 points from Klay Thompson (who was inexplicably left open time and again from three-point range, going 6-for-15). Stephen Curry also added 18 points, six rebounds and eight assists, despite having an off night, and Draymond Green had a brilliant all-around showing (five points, nine rebounds, nine assists while finishing a game-high a plus-19).
But it was Durant who steadied Golden State when, right from the opening jump, Houston went for the jugular. Harden, whose wondrous season last year was blemished by a disappearing act on this same court in Game 6 of the West semifinals against the San Antonio Spurs, looked like he was on a mission to change that, scoring 12 quick points as Houston jumped out to 13-4 and 21-12 leads that sent the sellout crowd into a frenzy.
Green, meanwhile, picked up an almost immediate technical foul, and Golden State struggled to find a rhythm.
Harden didn’t slow down, tallying 24 points by halftime, 32 after three quarters and finishing with 41 on 14-for-24 shooting to go with seven assists. He scored efficiently while hunting out the weak link in Golden State’s defense – typically either Curry or Kevon Looney.
But every time Harden made a basket, Durant had an answer. He finished with 13 points in that first quarter, allowing Golden State to end the frame down by one, 30-29, instead of the double-digit deficit Houston’s play seemed to merit. And his 13 points in the third quarter helped turn a game that was tied at halftime into one Golden State never trailed again.
“He’s been doing it for so long,” said Harden, who spent his first three seasons playing alongside Durant in Oklahoma City. “He can shoot over anybody. We’ve got to do a better job of being more physical, getting him off his spots. But he’s going to take tough shots. We’ve got to do a better job of contest, and make it even harder for him.”
Houston General Manager Daryl Morey built this team specifically to try to slow down Durant. Already with Trevor Ariza on the roster, Morey added Tucker and Mbah a Moute, two rugged perimeter defenders who can body up Durant. Paul, one of the best point guard defenders in league history and someone who has traditionally had success getting into Durant’s lower body, gave Houston another option. Harden and Eric Gordon aren’t great defenders, but both are at least long and stout, allowing them to hold up when Durant goes to the post.
All of them took turns on Durant. So, too, did Clint Capela, Houston’s starting center and one of the few 7-footers in the NBA capable of switching onto someone as skilled as Durant and remaining comfortable.
None of it mattered. Durant had his way with all of them, proving he remains among the most unguardable players in the NBA, given his unfair combination of being 7-feet tall while playing like a shooting guard.
In fact, the only person who managed to stop Durant all night — and nearly derailed Golden State in doing so — was Coach Steve Kerr.
With Durant cooking and Golden State up 85-72 with 2:23 to go in the third quarter, Kerr checked Durant out of the game. As he went to the bench, Durant kept asking, “Why?”
Given he had 13 points in the quarter alone, it was a fair question.
His question wound up looking prophetic when the Warriors promptly gave up a three-pointer to Gordon, and Andre Iguodala fouled Paul on a three-point attempt, immediately cutting Golden State’s lead from 13 to seven and prompting Kerr to send Durant back into the game. A missed jumper by Warriors reserve Shaun Livingston was followed by a three from Rockets reserve Gerald Green, and Houston was back within five at 85-80.
“Kevin’s never happy when he comes out of the game, no matter when I take him out,” Kerr said with a smile. “Yeah, he wasn’t thrilled, and I probably should have left him in.”
The Rockets would eventually get one point closer after Gordon opened the fourth quarter with a three to make it 87-83 with 11:44 remaining. But Golden State responded with a 13-4 run that fittingly, given the theme of the night, that was capped by a three from Durant, pushing the Warriors back to a 13-point lead. Houston never seriously challenged again.
The final minutes of the game ebbed away, but the final outcome was never in doubt. And that was the case because Durant ensured it stayed that way.
Games like these can swing on the smallest of plays.
What should have been an over-and-back against Golden State when Stephen Curry accidentally knocked the ball away from Klay Thompson instead was called in Golden State’s favor. The result was Thompson eventually hitting a three to put the Warriors up 10 with 3:54 remaining, instead of Houston having a chance to get it down to four.
In a game and a series with such thin margins, that could prove to be the difference in both.
When the Warriors took an 85-72 lead late in the third quarter, it looked like this game was about to get out of hand.
Instead, Steve Kerr made the strange decision to take Kevin Durant out of the game, and Houston immediately went on an 8-0 run to get right back into it.
Now, the Warriors lead 92-85 early in the fourth quarter, and it certainly feels like their game to lose. Draymond Green has barely been a factor since picking up his third foul midway through the second quarter, and Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have both been good, but not great. Meanwhile, James Harden (32 points on 11-for-17) is the only one cooking for Houston, and is keeping the Rockets in the game.
More interesting rotation decisions here, though, to start the fourth: Kevon Looney playing in the customary David West minutes, and Nene back in for Ryan Anderson after being benched in the first half.
The air has gone out of Toyota Center.
Stephen Curry just picked James Harden’s pocket in an isolation and hit a streaking Andre Iguodala for a dunk to make it 78-70 Golden State a little over midway through the third quarter.
For as great as Harden has been in this game — and he’s been great, with 30 points on 10-for-15 shooting — Durant has been just as dominant, putting up 29 without shooting a single free throw by getting to his spot every time down the court.
The Rockets are in danger of this game getting away.
One key for the Rockets was to keep Trevor Ariza on the court in the second half, after he picked up three fouls.
That hasn’t gone so well.
Less than three minutes in, Ariza not only picked up his fourth foul, but his fifth, leaving Houston without its best two-way wing, a huge problem in a series against Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant.
Twenty-four minutes after things started here in Houston, they remain in the same place: Tied.
At halftime, the Warriors and Rockets are knotted up at 56 in Game 1 of these Western Conference finals, with the opening half fulfilling what the entire basketball world has been waiting the past six months to see.
James Harden was sensational, scoring 24 points on 8-for-12 shooting, including 4-for-6 from three-point range, and looking like every bit of the presumptive MVP that he is. Kevin Durant, meanwhile, has gone 8-for-13 and scored 17 points, with Houston trying virtually everything to stop him, and failing every time.
Klay Thompson added 12 points and Stephen Curry nine and six assists for the Warriors, who also got a big boost with nine points from Nick Young off the bench, including a three to tie the game at 56 to end the half.
Both teams have shot the ball well — Houston is 9-for-21 from three, and Golden State is 7-for-17 — and have limited their turnovers (seven for Houston, five for Golden State). On the whole, the half feels like a win for the Warriors, especially with Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala limited to a combined 26 minutes because of foul trouble.
It should be a thrilling second half. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and the play on the court couldn’t be much better.
Foul trouble was always expected to play a role in this series. It’s already become a factor in the first half of Game 1.
Houston’s Trevor Ariza and Golden State’s Draymond Green each have three with 4:32 remaining in the first half, and Andre Iguodala also has two for the Warriors. Trading Ariza for Green is a swap the Rockets will take every time, but it still does remove two of the more important two-way players from the game.
A stint on the bench might actually do Green some good, as he’s been all over the place so far. Ariza, though, is the only one of Houston’s two-way wings that can reliably knock down a three, though he’s just 1-for-4 so far in this game.
Draymond Green is, as Johnny Cash once sang, walking the line here in Houston.
Green, always the emotional heartbeat of this Warriors team, has been on tilt in the first half of Game 1. He’s already picked up a technical foul for shoving James Harden in the opening minutes of the game (for reasons that were unclear), and has gotten in numerous lengthy discussions with the referees.
This is always the tricky thing with Green. He’s the engine that drives Golden State forward, but if he gets overheated he can fall apart. And if he does, so do the Warriors.
Green’s mentality as this game progresses will be one of the key things to monitor.
Inside Toyota Center, it felt like the Rockets were dominating the first quarter.
But Houston only led by one, 30-29 at the end of the frame. The Rockets were terrific, hitting five threes and getting 12 early points from James Harden (who hit three from deep). But Golden State just kept coming, getting 13 points from Kevin Durant, who was able to get a clean look at the basket every trip.
One notable change in Houston’s rotation here to start the second quarter worth watching: Ryan Anderson, benched against Utah, is back tonight in place of Nene, matching up with David West’s minutes. Houston clearly hopes his floor spacing can help this second unit, and that West can’t take advantage defensively.
Everything went right for the Rockets early in this game. Draymond Green got a technical foul, Andre Iguodala picked up two fouls, Houston raced out to an early 13-4 lead. And yet the Rockets still haven’t managed to pull away.
That’s a sign of just how powerful this Golden State team is. It also feels like about a million things have already happened, and it’s still less than seven minutes into the first quarter. There’s a ton of intensity in the building, and from both teams.
But if there were any doubts about how Houston would respond to the pressure of the moment, those went away with how the Rockets started this game. That includes James Harden, who already has 12 points as Houston is up 23-19.
The Warriors under Steve Kerr have usually played things conservatively. Kerr tends to wait to start his best lineups until he absolutely has to, much to the chagrin of the fans and media that cover his teams.
The fact he has gone away from that line of thinking in these playoffs is interesting. The fact he chose to do so to start this Western Conference finals is notable.
By starting the “Hamptons 5″ — Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green — Kerr didn’t do what he usually likes to which is leave himself a chip in reserve. It’s a sign of the respect the Warriors have for the Rockets, and also for the fact Kerr knows if Golden State wins this game, it could mean the series ends tonight.
Steve Kerr’s Warriors may not win Game 1, but Kerr provided the quote of the day.
Before the game, Kerr was asked about the Supreme Court decision Monday to allow states to set up frameworks to handle sports betting. Kerr, always and forever comfortable in front of a microphone, didn’t hesitate.
“I’m taking Warriors plus 1 1/2,” he said with a smile, referring to the Warriors being underdogs in the betting markets heading into Monday night’s game against the Rockets.
It isn’t often that the home team in a best-of-seven series feels like it must win Game 1. Yet that’s exactly the case for the Houston Rockets against the Golden State Warriors when the Western Conference finals kick off tonight, in what easily is one of the most hotly anticipated series in recent memory.
It’s hard not to look at this series and see parallels to the Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Like Toronto, Houston has spent the past year doggedly pursuing one opponent. Like Toronto, Houston relentlessly chased after the No. 1 overall seed in its conference so as to secure home court advantage. Like Toronto, Houston changed the way it played in preparation for this exact moment.
Now we get to see if Houston’s path can diverge from Toronto’s on the most important stage. When Toronto fell apart in the final minutes of Game 1, missing 16 of its final 18 shots and losing in overtime after never trailing in regulation, there was near unanimity around the league: The series was already over. It was just a matter of whether Toronto would make it look competitive or not.
The Raptors mostly did not, and Dwane Casey was fired because of it.
That’s not to say this situation is completely analogous; Houston is, without question, a much better team than Toronto. No one’s job is on the line. The Rockets will have more moves to make in the future to improve in ways that the Raptors will have difficulty doing.
But Houston has undoubtedly poured all of its energy into beating Golden State this season. A win in Game 1 would put the Warriors on the defensive, an unusual position for them, adding extra intrigue to Game 2.
A loss, though, could potentially see everything the Rockets have built come crashing down, particularly a convincing one. That’s what makes this game so compelling, and why the Rockets need, to find a way to come out on top.
Golden State Warriors at Houston Rockets, Game 1 — 9 p.m., TNT
Hop into the comments section below to chat with The Post’s Tim Bontemps about all of your NBA questions.