Kevin Durant being Kevin Durant was expected Monday night.
“Kevin is the ultimate luxury,” Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after his team’s 119-106 win over the Houston Rockets in Game 1 of their Western Conference finals series. “A play can break down and you just throw him the ball. He can get you a bucket as well as anybody on Earth.”
Durant was going to get his either way. The Rockets knew as much. They have a couple of capable perimeter defenders in Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker, but neither is in the class of young Kawhi Leonard, who gave Durant some real problems back when he was playing basketball.
“He’s what, 6-11?” Rockets guard James Harden asked. “He can shoot over anybody.”
So Durant is all-world. Enjoy the news flash. He played the biggest role in Golden State landing the first significant blow in this series, but he didn’t single-handedly beat Houston.
His team did.
Therein lies the problem.
The Warriors can out-Houston Houston and they can do it while playing better defense. Now for the first time, the Rockets are being asked to play better than they did in one of the best regular seasons in franchise history.
Golden State quickly reminded us that real champions swing first at ask questions later. The Warriors are 9-2 against Houston in the postseason since 2015 and are already in possession of homecourt advantage just 48 minutes into the series.
The Rockets won a league-best 65 games in the regular season with isolation basketball, which is basically allowing Harden to dribble down the clock at the top of the key before blowing by a defender or throwing a lob to center Clint Capela. They also get points with Chris Paul backing down a smaller point guard to get off a mid-range jumper or setting up teammates for open three-pointers.
Coach Mike D’Antoni will take 64 points and 10 assists from his best two players all day long, but it has to be particularly disheartening to still get run out of your own gym by double digits even with those numbers.
The Rockets will score more in Wednesday’s Game 2, but if improvement doesn’t come on the other end, they will join No. 1 Eastern Conference seed Toronto in the fishing boat. There were too many Warriors shooting uncontested three-pointers, particularly Klay Thompson, who knocked down 6 of 15. The Rockets switch on mostly every screen and Golden State took full advantage.
“They’re champs for a reason,” D’Antoni said. “If we want to beat them we have to be mentally sharp. (Durant), he’s tough, obviously. He was on tonight. You can live with that, but you can’t live with that and make mental mistakes.”
The biggest issue, besides Durant — whose 37 points came mostly via the mid-range game, with 21 of his 27 field goal attempts taken inside the three-point circle — is that Houston has to play nearly perfect to get it done and we all know the Rockets are notorious for giving up wide-open three-pointers. Utah had similar looks in the last round but the Jazz don’t have Durant, Thompson and two-time MVP Steph Curry.
The only person inside the Toyota Center who stopped Durant was Kerr, who heard it from his superstar when he sat him down with two minutes remaining in the third quarter with the Warriors up 85-72.
“Why?” Durant yelled at his teammates on the bench.
Houston scored a quick five points.
“Why?” Durant yelled again.
Kerr put him back in and Durant promptly sc0red the next five to restore order.
“I wanted to stay in the game at that point, but the best part about it, I trust Coach and we can move past those conversations pretty quick,” Durant said.
“Kevin’s never happy when he comes out of the game,” Kerr said. “No matter when I take him out. Even in the preseason, he’s upset if I take him out.”
It’s called being unstoppable, Steve.
While Golden State has the luxury of starting four all-stars in their prime, former all-star Andre Iguodala and reserve Nick Young, ages 34 and 33, respectively, added a combined 20 points — as if that team needed more offense.
And that’s what is giving D’Antoni fits going into a must-win Game 2. There is something to be said for accepting that KD will score a ton while concentrating your efforts on keeping the others under wraps, but his team didn’t provide a ton of resistance on the defensive end against those other Warriors. D’Antoni is an offensive coach by trade but Houston is up against the best offensive grouping of this generation, perhaps ever.
It’s not over, but it will be if Houston doesn’t figure it out in Game 2. The scary part is the the Rockets don’t really have a Plan B. They just have to cut down on the open looks and hope the Warriors — who are now 25-3 in their last 28 playoff games — come back to earth.
Good luck with that one.