OAKLAND — The sensation shakes your core, rocks your bones, a basketball tsunami that almost lifts you away when sitting in the vortex. Forget about sports. Short of an Ecstasy hit, or so they say, what else in modern recreational entertainment compares to a Warriors rally inside their rocket ship, all decibels and golden T-shirts and thunder sticks, with players and fans melding as one in a frenzy that feels like one part rock concert, one part religious revival and, dare I submit, one part sexual experience?
As is their habit, and an irritating one at that, the Warriors fell behind by 16 points in the second quarter Tuesday night. Is this a self-induced challenge to see how large a crater they can form for themselves? Is this a byproduct of how smooth their magical season has been, with break after fortuitous break, where they must create their own trials by fire? Whatever the mental hiccup is, they always manage to solve it, as they did in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. Returning from a slumber with a small lineup that swept to the halftime lead, the Warriors held off a sizzling James Harden and the Houston Rockets in the final quarter and won, 110-106, in a highly entertaining game that drained to the last seconds.
At the end, the Roaracle Arena crowd was as exhausted as it was euphoric. Not to be too demanding of a team that now has won 76 games and lost only 17, but why the slow starts?
“That's basketball. You're not always going to be on your A-game,” said Stephen Curry, holding his daughter on the podium afterward. “You want to come out and be aggressive, but it doesn't always click. We've got to find different ways to win. We've done that all year. We don't want to be in a hole, and that's not how we envision starting a game.
“But we fight. You can count on this team to fight and get back in the game.”
Fight? What the Warriors did in the final seven minutes of the first half was a clinical assault. It started, as it usually does, with a steal. It escalated with a three-pointer by the ever-improving Harrison Barnes, another steal by Klay Thompson, a driving slam-dunk by a miracle (Shaun Livingston) who has had so many knee issues that he's known as the father of reconstructive ACL surgeries. Then a three-pointer by Thompson, a steal by Barnes, another Livingston dunk, an eruption of defensive intensity that forced six turnovers. That's all it took for the Warriors to U-turn this bad boy and take the advantage at intermission on — what else? — a climactic jumper by You Know Who.
Veering left, moving right, then shaking left again against a hapless 6-10 sucker named Clint Capela, who was so deked out of his jock he was singing a cappella, Curry had nothing else to do but step back, lean as he shot and wait for the ball to do what it always does when millions are watching and the buzzer is about to sound. Swish, splash, boom, bang bang. Or something like that, with the fans taking several minutes of madness to new crescendos after his two-point jumper.
“Daddy, do well, Daddy,” I believe Riley Curry said into the microphone as she waved to the media, leaving Daddy to blush and hand her over to someone who could better defend her shot.
“She's only two, that's the craziest thing,” Daddy said.
This on a night when Harden and Curry played to a draw of sorts — a near-triple-double of 28 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists (and four steals) compared to Curry's 34 points, six rebounds and five assists and two steals — in what is only an indirect matchup of the MVP and MVP runner-up. They aren't guarding each other, with Thompson trying to hang with Harden. They are trying to match each other shot for shot, and given how Curry hit the halftime highlight and won the game, he gets the nod.
“We let the game slip away," Harden said. “We had several opportunities to win.”
One conclusion: The Warriors survived the best hit of the Rockets, who dominated the paint early and performed like an upgraded and more athletic version of a Memphis team that won twice in the last round, and should have an easier time now that Dwight Howard is out with a sizable wrap around his bruised left knee. If Howard is limited or can't play, well, I'm not going to say the Warriors will sweep the series but it's yet the latest wave of good karma that keeps coming their way. They avoided the Spurs. The Clippers choked. So many other teams, including their next possible opponent in Cleveland, have dealt with injuries to key players. Howard's health issue is yet another development in their favor.
Said Howard, who injured the knee when colliding with teammate Josh Smith: “It was bothering me the whole game. I really couldn't run, jump or do anything.”
Will he play in Game 2? “Thank God it is nothing major, but bruises around your knee make it very hard to do a lot things I want to do. It was very painful. … There isn't anything they can do but ice it and do (stimulation). We'll see how it feels.”
“We played over half a season without Dwight. We've still got to play. There are layups there to be made,” grumbled Rockets coach Kevin McHale, bemoaning that his team had 51 shots in the paint but made only 26 while Warriors center Andrew Bogut played only 16 minutes while in foul trouble. “We didn't finish. Bogut barely played, and there's no shot-blocking. We've got to finish.”
This was a missed opportunity for Harden and McHale, no question. The Warriors, as you've noticed, strive to be ahead of their time, priding themselves in this high-tech Bay Area kingdom on wearing heart-rate monitors, using cameras to track players' movements, blasting music to the rhythm of court-length practice heaves and, in their coach's case, reading books and articles that don't involve basketball. Yet sometimes, this game goes back in time, particularly in the playoffs, when physicality, pounding and snorting can trump a streamlined, beautiful, three-point ballet. All we've heard from Steve Kerr is that the Warriors have ruled the NBA with defensive intensity. Early in Game 1, the Rockets shredded that premise by doing anything they wanted inside, which, combined with the gifts of Harden and athleticism of his colleagues, presented another blueprint on how the Warriors can be toppled.
“They've obviously gotten better,” Thompson said.
But the Warriors won because they were able to make the comeback, withstand various second-half challenges from Harden and Trevor Ariza, and survive. McHale came into the game preaching, “We've got to win one game in Golden State.” The Rockets will have another shot Thursday night, but after a comeback fueled by the likes of Livingston and Barnes, it's now should be apparent to the masses that the Warriors are about more than Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green.
“I'm just trying to bring energy off the bench and do my part,” said Livingston, a feel-good story after a vital 18-point, 6-rebound effort. “Steph gets a lot of attention. Klay gets a lot of attention. But Draymond is an underrated passer. Andre Iguodala — we have guys who can make shots and plays.”
The trick early in the game, Livingston said, is to match the opponents' “intensity.” At some point, early sluggishness may come back to haunt the Warriors, but not likely in this series. And certainly not at home. “We were feeding off the crowd. You know Oracle,” he said. “When we went on our run, the place was rocking, and it's got to be intimidating for the other team.”
The MVP was more than happy to talk about the veteran who made it back, after so much professional heartache, and might win a ring. “Shaun was a huge reason we came back,” Curry said. “That's the beauty of the playoffs. You hope the main guys show up and play well, but you need pieces to carry some of that load.”
You knew the Warriors weren't going to lose in the final minutes when Livingston found Curry for an easy layup. The play was made possible by Green, who mucked it up on the floor with Ariza, wrestling him into the Houston bench in what could have been a technical foul but was ruled otherwise. Somehow, Green found reason to blame Ariza, the same player who brushed Curry in January and nearly caused a riot at Oracle. “If you swing your elbow, it's probably going to hit me in the face,” Green said. “It is what is is. No big deal.”
That is becoming the mantra of their season. No matter what they face, no matter how daunting the obstacle, the Warriors overcome all. No big deal.