It's not often that the NBA Most Valuable Player and the MVP runner-up meet in the playoffs. Rarer yet is when the megamatchup exceeds expectations.
James Harden versus Stephen Curry was one of them in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday night.
Everyone except Warriors' adviser Jerry West took a turn on Harden, and he still just missed a triple-double — 28 points (on 26 total shots), 11 rebounds and nine assists. He also had four steals. This wasn't the same guy who Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale benched with the season on the line in the previous series.
Stephen Curry was a tad better, but only because his team escaped with a 110-106 victory. He had a line of 36 points (25 shots), six rebounds, five assists and a pair of steals.
“It's a lot more fun to watch Steph do that than James,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr could laugh afterward. “Yeah, James really got it rolling. We did a good job on him in the first half … We debated on the bench whether to switch our coverage, but when he's hitting tough, contested, fall-away 2's, there's not a whole lot you can do.”
If Harden and Curry play the rest of the way like they did in the opener, the matchup will be a doozy.
KRAFTWORK YELLOW: You mean that, only days after the Patriots issued an angry, don't-mess-with-us, 20,000-word rebuttal to the Wells investigation, owner Robert Kraft accepted the punishment because Deflategate had gone on too long?
What Balls thinks: The Patriots were advised they had zero chance to win an appeal, so Kraft tried to hand off the blame to commissioner Roger Goodell on an audible.
SHERIFF IS IN TOWN: Know what else led Kraft to change his mind? His chats with the other team owners at the NFL spring meetings earlier this week. He realized that too many teams like the 49ers weren't on his side.
“Somebody has to be the sheriff,” 49ers owner John York told USA Today. “It's not fun being the sheriff. Nobody comes out as a winner. Regardless, the most important thing is the integrity of the league.”
Didn't know the Naked Reverse was in coach Bill Belichick's playbook, did you?
GUILTY AS CHARGED: Kraft was right — the Deflategate mess should have been cleaned up a lot earlier. The NFL police had two weeks to prove that Tom Brady had conspired to gain an unfair competitive advantage in the AFC Championship Game, at which point the quarterback should have been suspended until further notice.
Attach an asterisk to Super Bowl XLIX, yet another game that Bill and the Belicheats had to bend the rules to win.
GOODELL 49, PATRIOTS 0: Goodell has turned Deflategate into an absolute rout, but if Brady's four-game suspension is reduced, he won't win by nearly as much.
FINE PRINT: Opinions may be split about the Rockets' defense, but this fact has the Warriors' attention: They led the league in opponents' 3-point field goal percentage in the regular season.
“We know how much they value the 3-point shot offensively, so it makes sense that they would value defending that since they believe in that principle so much,” Kerr told Balls earlier this week. “They've built their team that way. They've got length across the board, so they get out and challenge (the shot). And when you have Dwight (Howard) at the rim, you can stay home a little bit more.”
Which means the Rockets could win a game or two in the series.
JUST ASKIN': The Warriors owned the Rockets in the regular season, but as Kerr had the courage to admit, “The regular season doesn't mean anything.”
So why does the NBA charge an average of $53.98 for a ticket to meaningless games then?
THE LIST: Per Bovada, the odds in the Western Conference finals:
n Rockets win 4-1: 40/1
n Rockets win 4-2: 12/1
n Rockets win 4-3: 14/1
n Warriors win 4-0: 13/4
n Warriors win 4-1: 7/4
n Warriors win 4-2: 7/2
n Warriors win 4-3: 15/4
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