OAKLAND — As Houston Rockets forward P.J. Tucker buried a wide-open 3-pointer in front of his own bench on Saturday evening at Oracle Arena, Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr refused to call a timeout.
Tucker’s shot capped off a 15-0 run over the first four minutes of the first quarter for the Rockets, who took Kerr’s Warriors to seven games in last season’s Western Conference Finals, but couldn’t finish off the eventual NBA champions.
“I’m not sure what I would have told them,” Kerr said. “There’s no adjustment when it’s 15 to nothing and everyone is running in mud.”
As exemplified by that abysmal start, Golden State put forth an undisciplined effort against a Rockets team playing without reigning MVP James Harden on Saturday night. Despite working their way out of the initial hole, the Warriors’ poor play would lead to a 118-112 loss at Oracle Arena.
“I mean they came out with a free swing without James [Harden],” point guard Stephen Curry said. “As great as we’ve had comebacks and we understand that it’s a 48-minute game, you give a team that much confidence, going down 15-0 the way that it happened, we lost the game right there.”
Less than two hours before tip off on Saturday night, Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni announced that Harden — who came in having scored 30 or more points in 32 straight games — would not play due to a cervical strain in his neck, as well flu-like symptoms.
Golden State had faced similar circumstances earlier this season facing a teams without their leading scorer or playmaker, the latest example being Feb. 2, as Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James was ruled out for “load management.”
While the Warriors managed to squeak by with a 115-101 win over the LeBron-less Lakers on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, they faced an uphill battle, falling behind by as much as 10 in the third quarter that night.
On Saturday, that kind of let down surfaced much sooner. Missing all five of their field goal attempts and turning the ball over three times in the first four minutes, the Warriors looked completely out of whack from the jump.
“We weren’t prepared to play,” Kerr said. “It’s on me. I’ve got to do a better job on getting these guys ready to play. We’re turning it over, we’re not executing … we have not done a good job as a group.”
It wouldn’t be until the 7:45 mark of the first quarter that Golden State would score their first basket as Klay Thompson hit a triple from 28 feet out.
Waking up from the sleepwalking state that plagued their first quarter, Golden State would make a concerted effort to pull itself out of the massive hole they had dug for themselves.
While the focus was to set up center DeMarcus Cousins in the low post for the first quarter, Kerr decided to move the big man towards the perimeter as the game progressed. The adjustment seemed to work.
“We have different ways we can play,” Kerr said. “I though we got back into the game late in the first half by playing faster and playing more open.”
Cutting the deficit to just seven by halftime, Golden State would reel itself back into contention in the third quarter. On 10-2 run coming out of the locker room, the Warriors took their first lead of the game, as Cousins knocked down a 3-pointer on the left wing.
For Cousins, that would be his brightest moment, as he struggled for much of the night. Shooting a mere 4-of-12 from the floor, Cousins finished as a team-low minus-17 — his worst performance this season as a Warrior.
“Guys are attacking me every night,” Cousins said. “I just got to be ready for it and be prepared for it. Try to stay out of f***ing foul trouble.”
On top of Cousins’ poor shooting, he also struggled with the whistle, as he has for much of his career. Cousins picked up four personal fouls in 24 minutes as well as a technical foul that stemmed from his displeasure with the officiating.
Despite Golden State’s rally in the second half, Houston would reclaim control of the game as Golden State regressed back to turning the ball over and playing lackadaisical defense. Houston would be led by guard Chris Paul, the man whose absence in Game 7 last year has been looked at as the difference maker in the outcome of that series. On Saturday, Paul finished the night with 23 points and a game-high 17 assists.
To add an even more troubling wrinkle to the night, the Warriors would also lose forward Draymond Green to a sprained ankle after awkwardly stepping on Cousins’ foot three minutes into the fourth quarter.
“I talked to Draymond briefly and he said he thought he sprained the same ankle earlier in the game,” Kerr said. “We’ll see. I don’t think it’s a really serious injury but we’ll have an update tomorrow.”
Green did not return to the game and without him, the Rockets were able to build their lead back up as high as 14 points.
Even without their patented closer in Harden, Houston was able to close out the game, handing the Warriors their 17th loss of the season.
“It seems like I tell our team every day ‘the whole league had gotten better and everybody had been scheming and plotting and planning for us,’” Kerr said. “I thought Houston came in and dominated us. We didn’t deserve to win.”