To win an NBA championship, you have to win 16 games. And before you can win 16, you need to win one. And before you can win one, you need to win enough of the moments in a 48-minute game.
Everyone knows this, including the Houston Rockets. But after Game 1 in Houston, the question needs to be asked: Can they honestly believe that they’re good enough to win enough moments to dethrone the defending NBA champions?
After spending an entire season doing whatever they could to grab home-court advantage for a showdown with Golden State, Houston quickly lost it because the Warriors are just too good.
The Rockets’ best player and the league’s likely most valuable player, James Harden, was as good as someone can be offensively in scoring 41 points and still, the Warriors took a 1-0 lead in the Western Conference finals, beating Houston 119-106 in front of a disheartened Toyota Center crowd.
No one is saying the series is over.
Chris Paul said it’s a simple recipe before the team takes the floor Wednesday night — watch film and shift focus as quickly as possible. Klay Thompson said the Warriors can’t give the win any more value than it actually carries.
“It was a great win,” Thompson said. “But this series is far from over.”
Still, the facts are the facts.
Kevin Durant was there to match Harden shot for shot, his greatness on full display in scoring 37 points despite sometimes being overshadowed by the Warriors’ brand of basketball. The Rockets did their best to deny him the ball, but too many times it ended up in his hands in position to score. Thompson, one of his generation’s top shooters, was just too open too often in scoring 28. And Stephen Curry, one of the most dangerous scorers, scored just 18 points and surely has better basketball in him this series.
So even with Harden opening the game by scoring Houston’s first nine points, even with a first-quarter lead on the edge of double digits, even with Harden passing the 30-point mark while fans still were getting back with their halftime hot dogs, the Rockets couldn’t win.
“He needs about 55 next time and that would take care of it,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni joked. “I’ll just have to tell him that.”
Paul, Harden’s help, wasn’t nearly as spectacular as he was in scoring 41 in Houston’s close-out game against Utah, scoring 23 points, aided largely by some meaningless late baskets. In his first conference finals game of his career, Paul was silent for extended stretches — partly because of Harden, partly because of Golden State’s defense.
Houston needed more from its stars, especially with the Warriors getting so much from theirs.
Add in Houston’s mistakes, slow developing offensive possessions, shot-clock violations and turnovers, and the Warriors looked like too much for the Rockets to handle for all of the night, save for Harden’s early explosion.
For each of the errors, the Warriors had an answer.
“Every time we made a mistake,” Paul said, “they made us pay.”
Monday, Durant was the answer to anything Houston threw at him, scoring on seemingly everyone in the building. The spaghetti-armed big man can shoot and dribble like a guard, putting him in mismatches almost every second he’s on the court.
“I don’t know what you do to guard him,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “He can get any shot he wants.”
Since a lethargic performance in a Game 3 loss to New Orleans in the previous round, Durant’s been rolling, scoring 38 and 24 points to close out the Pelicans before burning the Rockets on Monday.
“I don’t know if we’re at our peak,” Durant said. “I think we could be better.”
Kerr said the Warriors are as locked in as they’ve been all season, hitting their stride as they begin their quest for a fourth straight appearance in the NBA Finals.
“I felt like this was coming,” Kerr said before the game. “I think our players kind of felt it most of the season — it’s a feeling of, ‘Are we there yet?’ Like you say to your parents when they’re driving you cross-country. ‘Are we there yet? Are we there yet?’
“I felt like that’s what my players were asking me all season.”
They’re here. The Rockets know it.
Durant, Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green all know it.
And, with sports betting on the path to being widely legalized, Kerr made a crack before it all started Monday.
“I’m taking the Warriors plus 1.5,” he joked.
He knew his team was no underdog.