After the game, confetti fell to the court. During it, the players did.
James Harden and the Houston Rockets hunted whistles. Draymond Green and the Golden State Warriors hunted loose balls. After a chaotic final 30 seconds, the Warriors walked off the court at Oracle Arena with a 104-100 win Sunday in the first game of the Western Conference semifinals.
“Both teams came out and played with championship-level intensity,” said Warriors forward Kevin Durant, who had 35 points. “And I think that’s going to happen for the rest of the series.”
Harden, who also scored 35, made 14 trips to the foul line but spent much of the game on his back, trying to draw fouls from behind the three-point line. Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said the officials told him after halftime they missed four calls on Harden shots in the first half.
“That’s 12 foul shots,” D’Antoni said.
Harden, who has led the NBA in free throws in each of the last five seasons and six of the last seven, pleaded for more whistles.
“I just want a fair chance man,” Harden said. “Call the game how it’s supposed to be called and that’s it. And I’ll live with the results.”
Harden’s grievances aren’t completely unfounded. Video replay showed Klay Thompson sliding under Harden’s feet on more than one jump shot. NBA rules mandate that an airborne shooter have space for a clean landing.
But where it gets tricky — and where it’ll stay tricky — is with a player like Harden, who fires shots from all angles and contortions, sometimes jumping forward, sometimes jumping backward. It happened on a game-tying attempt late in the fourth quarter, with Harden launching from deep while he jumped forward, with no whistle to follow.
“I’ve been fouled by James on a James three-pointer,” Green said with a laugh. “I’m going to contest his shot. When you land three feet ahead of where you shoot the ball from, that really ain’t my issue.”
Harden wasn’t the only aggrieved Rocket. After Harden’s miss, Chris Paul got ejected in the final seconds after receiving his second technical foul on a play where he appeared to make contact with an official. His first technical came after he made a three-point shot and thought he was fouled.
“We could have easily gone to the line another 20 times during the game,” D’Antoni said, trying to find silver linings. “We’re OK.”
Maybe Houston is. Stylistically, Game 1 was exactly what the Rockets wanted.
The Warriors turned the ball over 20 times, rarely finding the beautiful offensive rhythm that’s defined them over the last four seasons. The ball didn’t zip around. The court didn’t open up for fastbreak buckets. Nothing was easy. Everything was clunky.
After being pushed to the edge by the Rockets over seven games in last year’s conference finals, Golden State looked more comfortable dwelling in the muck.
“We’re better as a team when we focus on defense,” Durant said. “On offense, we kind of play real unpredictable. We don’t have a set way we’re going to play.”
There were some surprises. Thompson, a game-time decision because of an ankle injury, played more than 41 minutes. Andre Iguodala made a surprise appearance in the starting lineup. For all that unpredictability, though, the Warriors’ offense lately has been a little easier to anticipate.
Since that shocking loss to the Clippers in Game 2 of the first round, Durant has averaged 40.2 points over his last five games — Sunday afternoon constituting a “slow day.”
“Kevin’s run these last couple of weeks, it’s just been off the charts,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “I’ve said it a few times this week. I mean, he’s the most skilled basketball player on earth.”
Durant even received another round of “MVP” chants — a chorus the crowd traditionally has reserved for Stephen Curry.
“I think [Durant] just felt like he had to turn it up and lift us up another level,” Kerr said.
Still, it was Curry who got to deliver the final blow, a dagger three-point shot on a swift left-to-right crossover against mismatched big man Nene that sent Oracle Arena into hysteria.