OAKLAND — Last week, the Houston Rockets put out a public request to face the Warriors in the second round of the NBA Playoffs.
“That’s what I want,” Rockets center Clint Capela said after their first round series win over the Utah Jazz. “I want to face them.”
As it turned out, Capella got his wish, as the Warriors and Rockets opened their second-round matchup Sunday afternoon, and Houston took Golden State to the edge in a 104-100 win for the defending champions at Oracle Arena.
“Our guys competed like crazy and so did their guys, obviously,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “It’s just basketball at its highest level with competition at its highest level.”
For much of the first round — as well as the regular season — the Warriors struggled to take care of the basketball. Lazy passes mixed with a complacent offensive mindset often translated into double-digit giveaways. Their 13 turnovers in the first half (and the 16 points Houston scored off of those turnovers) allowed the Rockets to stay in the game despite a dismal shooting start.
“One thing we’ve got to correct is those turnovers,” Warriors forward Kevin Durant said. “I had six of them myself trying to be aggressive in crowds. Gotta watch film to see how we can be better at that.”
The Warriors outshot Houston by over 30 percent beyond the arc in the first half, and limited James Harden, who was just 3-for-9 from three and 4-for-14 from the floor overall. Missing 13 of their first 14 three-point attempts of the game, Houston had only made one of their last 41 postseason attempts from beyond the arc against Golden State, dating back to Game 7 of the 2018 Western Conference Finals, when they missed their last 27 threes.
Much of the defensive work on Harden fell on Thompson, who was a game-time decision heading into Sunday with a sprained right ankle, which he injured in Game 6 against the Clippers after stepping on a defender’s foot while driving to the hoop.
“I never doubted Klay,” Durant said. “He has that toughness that he does that in the regular season. So I knew that this time of the year he would tough it out.”
Avoiding Houston’s attempts at drawing the switch with screens at the top of the arc, Golden State kept Harden away from the basket and forced the MVP candidate into tough, contested 3-point attempts.
While Thompson and fellow Warriors defensive anchor Andre Iguodala closed out with a hand in his face, Harden often attempted to draw fouls by falling to the ground. Despite his best efforts to sell the contact, the officiating crew, led by 16-year veteran Zach Zarba, did not succumb to Harden’s pleas.
“I mean I just want a fair chance, man,” said Harden. “Call the game how it’s supposed to be called and that’s it.”
Warriors forward Draymond Green didn’t appreciate Harden’s gripes.
“I’ve been fouled by James [Harden] on a James 3-pointer before,” Green said. “I ain’t going with that one. I’m straight.”
Despite Golden State’s attentiveness and execution defensively, the Rockets had drawn even at 53 by halftime thanks to two live-ball turnovers within the final 44 seconds of the first half. Durant had struggled from the floor, but the reigning Finals MVP began the third quarter with a revitalized sense of urgency.
Trading blows with Houston, who started the period radiating confidence, Durant scored 15 of his 35 points while playing the entirety of the third quarter. Nine of those points came off of free throws, after being awarded zero attempts in the first half.
“He’s been around for a long time. And, you know, when you play in the playoffs, the shots get tougher and tougher,” Kerr said.
Part of the reason for Durant’s ramped-up usage was the fact that Stephen Curry, who found himself in foul trouble in all six games against the Clippers, was forced to take a seat on the bench after picking up his fourth foul four minutes into the third.
Often times, Curry was called for reach-in fouls while defending inside of the 3-point line. He finished the afternoon with five fouls.
“The ones, like I talked about, were blatant reaches or ones that I can avoid for sure,” Curry said. “That’s where you get into situations where it puts your butt on the bench.”
Behind Durant’s dominance, the Warriors built a seven-point lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Once again, as they showed through the first three quarters of the game, the Rockets were unwilling to roll over, and they tied the game again at 89 with six minutes to play, silencing a once-deafening Oracle crowd. But just as in the third, Durant took over down the stretch.
With nine points in the final six minutes of the game, Durant carried Golden State to the finish line. Then, up by just two points with 44 seconds to play in the game, Curry stepped up.
Taking the shot clock down to the final seconds, Curry pulled up from 27 feet in front of Houston big man Nenê for the dagger three, pounding his chest and beckoning the crowd to get loud again.
“Just gotta make plays when the moment is calling for you,” Curry said. “My reaction was I just needed one to go down. It was obviously a big one.”