By: Forrest Walker
The Western Conference Finals have begun and the Golden State Warriors have taken the expected 1-0 series lead on the Houston Rockets. It was not, however, a double-digit bashing, nor was it an ugly, one-sided game. This was a real contest, the kind that suggests an entertaining series worthy of the third round of the NBA playoffs. James Harden is exceptional, Trevor Ariza has icewater in his veins, and the Rockets aren't afraid of the Warriors. This is gonna be fun.
The biggest worry, bigger even than going in a one game hole, is that Dwight Howard suffered a bruised knee when Josh Smith slid into him. He played through it to the best of his ability, and still grabbed 13 rebounds in the game, but had to leave in the fourth quarter, and did not return in a critical stretch run. If his knee will recover soon, the Rockets look to be in surprisingly good shape. When he wasn't posting up (which he should stop doing, forever, immediately), he was a force of nature, and was winning his matchup and more. His presence is mission critical here, and the news that comes out over the next forty-eight hours may determine Houston's fate.
The good news is that the Warriors don't seem to be able to contain James Harden as well as the Los Angeles Clippers could. It's surprising that a better defense is more pliant to Harden's game, but LA had a perfect storm for containing Harden. DeAndre Jordan's rim protection and JJ Redick's startling defensive alacrity were able to slow him and make the other Rockets beat them. The other Rockets did indeed beat the Clippers, and now Harden faces the slightly less successful Klay Thompson and Andrew Bogut, the latter of whom stayed in foul trouble and the former of whom was biting on far too many of Harden's fakes. James flirted extensively with a triple double, ending the night with 28 points on 11-20 shooting, 11 rebounds, 9 assists, and 4 steals. Harden took his team as far as anyone can, going on a scoring run by himself to close the game up late.
Unfortunately, without Dwight Howard inside to hold the fort, Terrence Jones and Josh Smith weren't able to keep from getting washed away by the tidal wave that is Golden State's defense. Jones' 2-10 shooting was indicative of his inability to finish at the rim in the second half, and it was only by divine providence that Josh Smith ended with more points (17) than shots (16). Jason Terry joined in the letdown brigade, shooting 2-9 and clanking on open threes, though he did play better than expected defense on resident fire elemental Steph Curry.
Curry shot 6-11 from three point range, and a few of these were open. That's gotta change.
The pleasant surprise captains were Clint Capela and Pablo Prigioni, who looked fresh and relatively un-scouted by the opposition. Prigioni seemed to have saved up all his super bar for tonight's game, and hopefully he has more in the tank for the rest of the series. He's looked like the crafty veteran that general manager Daryl Morey hoped he was trading for, and Clint Capela is showing limitless promise. Capela is performing plenty well, even if he's on a huge stage much sooner than expected. He cleans up around the rim, sets good screens, flushed the ball, and plays remarkably tenacious defense. He's going to be overmatched as the series progresses, but he's better than he should be right now, and is a delight to watch.
The big story is that the Warriors had to fight to keep the Rockets down late, and were up by only 2 points with 15 seconds left in the game. The Rockets led by 16 early in the second quarter, and forced a sleepwalking Warriors team to step it up. A lot can happen, but this doesn't look like a series headed to a sweep. If Dwight can take the floor, if Harden can prove he deserves all his MVP votes and more, and if the role players can get anywhere near Trevor Ariza's level (who was the second best player for the Rockets tonight), the Rockets can make this a series. Ariza's fourth three in five tries cut the lead to 2, and it proved something important. The Rockets aren't laying down, and they aren't going away.