HOUSTON — When Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant was pulled from Monday’s Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals with 2:14 to go in the third quarter, he bellowed back at the bench, “Why?”
With the Houston Rockets’ James Harden having hit the bench 30 seconds earlier, the Warriors had a chance to pull away, already with a 13-point lead. Instead, the scorching Durant — who was 13-for-24 from the floor at that point — had to take a seat. Instead, he stewed as he paced the sideline.
“Kevin’s never happy when he comes out of a game, no matter when I take him out,” head coach Steve Kerr said. “I probably should have left him on.”
Houston went on a 6-0 run, and Durant quickly re-entered, hitting a pair of free throws. Durant would finish 14-for-27 on the night for 37 points, going 3-for-6 from beyond the arc and out-dueling his former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate Harden (41 points) in a 119-106 win.
“I trust coach,” Durant said of his confab with Kerr. “The best part is that we can have those conversations and move past them pretty quick.”
Durant’s indefensible shooting — combined with 18 fast-break points and 13 Houston turnovers — keyed the Warriors as they neutralized home-court advantage in the first playoff series they’ve started on the road under Kerr.
“KD’s tough. He was on tonight, and you can live with that, but you can’t live with mental mistakes,” said Houston coach Mike D’Antoni. “Too many times, we weren’t quite tough enough. I think we ran out of gas in certain spots, and they didn’t.”
D’Antoni lamented the 13 turnovers, but that’s well in-line with the Rockets’ 13.4 season per-game average.
“That’s not that many turnovers,” said Durant, who was the only Warrior starter without a steal.
Houston — a team self-proclaimed to be constructed specifically to defeat the Warriors — went on a 12-4 opening run against Kerr’s vaunted Hamptons Five lineup (Klay Thompson, Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala), a run stemmed only a bit by bringing in Kevon Looney, after which the Warriors went on a 6-0 run of their own.
With 3:17 left in the first though, Looney did his best when he seemingly did nothing at all. With Harden sitting on the right block, Looney backed into him, in what looked to be a simple — and light — butt-bump. Harden fell to the floor unable to breathe, eventually making his way off the court. He sat for the rest of the quarter, and the Warriors — riding Durant — outscored Houston 21-15, getting to within one, down 30-29.
“I think he’s fine,” D’Antoni said. “I didn’t notice anything bad. He got a little tired, but we were riding him pretty good. He ended up with 41 and seven [rebounds], so I think he did pretty good.”
Durant put on a shooting clinic in the first quarter, hitting elbow jumpers, threes and drifting floaters across the free throw line, going 6-for-9 from the field for a game-high 13 points. Luc Mbah a Moute and P.J. Tucker did their level best to stop Durant, but even with their athleticism, and the Rockets’ switching defense, Houston simply had no answer.
“A play can break down, you throw him the ball and he can get you a bucket as well as anybody on earth,” Kerr said.
Twenty-one of Durant’s 27 shots came inside the three-point line, and he found a lot of shots between 15 and 20 feet.
“You know how we play — we want to keep the ball moving — but obviously, Kevin is the ultimate luxury,” Kerr said. “… You think about a couple of years ago, when we were in the finals and couldn’t quite get over the hump, Kevin puts you over the hump. I don’t know what you do to guard him.”
After the Warriors got out to a modest 65-60 lead in the third quarter, Durant and Harden began trading baskets.
Durant used his long arms to get a lay-up while his body was behind the glass with 9:07 to go in the third. Harden answered with a close-in jumper, and then a mid-range 15-footer on the right wing. Durant came back with a 12-footer and an 18-footer.
Even as Durant went cold — as he did going 0-for-4 after starting the third quarter 4-for-5 — the Warriors had enough other scorers to make up the difference, including Nick Young — who made three three-pointers when point guard Chris Paul helped off of him — and Thompson, who hit 6 of 15 three-pointers, and finished with 28 points.
“Klay Thompson got 15 threes. We’re switching on him for that reason. He can’t get 15 threes,” D’Antoni said. “The way Nick Young got to it, we didn’t come back and pick him up. We rotated the wrong guy. Little things like that that we can clean up.”
With Harden on the bench for the first three minutes of the fourth quarter, the Warriors expanded the lead to nine with a three and a pair of free throws from Thompson.
With four minutes left in the game, a rebound from a Curry three went out to center court, where Curry, Thompson and Harden each reached for it. It was ruled that Harden touched it, rather than a back court violation on the Warriors. Thompson recovered, passed back to Curry, who tossed it to Draymond Green, who found Thompson wide open beyond the arc on the left side for a three, making it 106-96.
“He stole like 10 of my threes,” Curry said of Thompson. “I want them back.”