OAKLAND — It was everything NBA playoff basketball is supposed to be, two desperate teams crashing and colliding, scoring and rebounding, getting leads and losing them and, in the final frantic seconds, making a great defensive play to save a victory for the Warriors.
“You just want the win,” said Steve Kerr, the Warriors coach. And they just got it, 99-98, over Houston on Thursday night at Oracle, to take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven NBA Western Conference final.
There were missed free throws, missed chances and too many turnovers, including one by Houston's seemingly unstoppable James Harden, who had the possible winning shot in his hands before the ball was stripped on a trap by his rival, Stephen Curry, and Klay Thompson. If you want a who's-the-MVP moment, wouldn't that be it?
This wasn't smallball, it was Powerball. It was big body, the Warriors' 7-foot Andrew Bogut, against big body, Houston's 6-10 Dwight Howard, who despite a sprained left knee played 40 minutes — and had 19 points and 17 rebounds. This was when the NBA resembles a wrestling match or a made-for-TV drama show, one miniclimax after another.
First it was the Warriors' game, as they burst to a 17-point lead, 49-32, with just under eight minutes left in the first half. Then it was the Rockets' game as they came back to tie, 55-55, at intermission. The arena, nicknamed “Roaracle,” turned silent as 19,956 fans stopped cheering and started gasping.
What happened to home-court advantage? What happened to the home team? What happened was postseason basketball, push and shove, a tug-of-war, embellished by individual brilliance from Harden, with 38 points, and Curry, with 33.
“This is how the playoffs go,” said Kerr. “You're playing great teams that are generally a lot more in tune with game planning and preparation … I've never seen a team go through the playoffs with ease. It's hard. Playoff games are hard.”
Hard, hard, and for Houston, Harden, the 6-foot-5 wizard who was brilliant — until the last play. Taking it to the hoop with only a few seconds left, he lost the ball to Curry and Thompson, and the Rockets lost the game.
“I'll take my chances every time with the ball in the hands of our best player,” said Houston coach Kevin McHale. But it was a case, on both sides, of too many failed chances. The Warriors had too many turnovers, 16. The Rockets had too many balls stolen, 10.
“We'll take our best player going downhill,” said McHale, meaning Harden under full steam. “They kind of pinched him, had a bit of bobble. I was trying to get a timeout, could have with about two-and-a-half seconds. But I saw two guys behind the play, and no way I was going to call timeout.”
Kerr could only sigh and realize his team was going to Houston having held serve, keeping the home advantage.
“Two great teams going head to head,” said Kerr. “I thought we played at too much of a [scrambled] pace early. We were competing, but we weren't executing. In the end, it was great competition.”