HOUSTON — The Golden State Warriors didn’t add Kevin Durant with your feelings in mind. Basketball fans can lament all that they want about how Durant’s presence is unfair on what already was a great team, but that was the plan. The Warriors wanted to be unflappable at times when they appeared vulnerable; to not miss a beat if Stephen Curry was unavailable or physically compromised; to limit their opponent’s margin for error to zero. They wanted to be able to walk into a visiting arena, in the first game of a playoff series against a team that has had its sights fixated on them all season — and watch Durant burn down the whole place with flamethrower turnaround jumper after flamethrower pull-up jumper.
The Houston Rockets entered the Western Conference finals with home-court advantage and the hope that they could dethrone the defending champions with the likely MVP in James Harden and a member of the last team in the conference to defeat the Warriors in the playoffs in Chris Paul. But in a matter of 48 minutes, the Warriors snatched away home court with a 119-106 victory Monday night and allowed some concern to creep in that the hyped-up series fans have been anticipating since last summer will be another in a collection of light work operations since Durant took his talents to the Bay.
“Kevin is the ultimate luxury because a play can break down and you just throw him the ball. He can get you a bucket as well as anybody on Earth,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “This is why anybody would want him on their team. You think about a couple years ago, and we’re in the Finals and we couldn’t quite get over the hump. Kevin is the guy that puts you over the hump. I don’t know what you do to guard him. He can get any shot he wants.”
If the hate Durant has had to endure for his decision to give the Warriors a dynasty vision wasn’t so prevalent, his on-court brilliance would probably be more admired or appreciated. Durant has been the best player not named LeBron James this postseason and that’s coming off an NBA Finals in which he outplayed James in what amounted to a gentleman’s sweep. Since putting on a Warriors jersey, Durant has almost been too good — even if his burner accounts and other off-court blunders have made for a strange dichotomy. James had to endure more venom when he joined forces with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. But James’ humiliating performance against Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals almost made the modern-day Goliath appear human, even relatable, and eventually more likable once he captured the ultimate prize.
The Warriors with Durant just look like bullies. And not just any bully, the untouchable kind that places his hand on your head and lets you swing away in a tizzy, connecting only with the air.
Social media routinely loves to stage a good roast but dominance doesn’t regularly get clowned. Blown 3-1 lead jokes had a good run. After sending the Rockets home pondering how they’ll overcome what no other team has been able to solve, Golden State is now a combined 25-3 over the past two postseasons. And the difference doesn’t require much introspection. Not when a 7-footer with endless range is serving up “come-and-get-some” shots over whomever attempts to guard him. Not when he’s so hellbent on crushing the Rockets that he clapped angrily at Kerr for giving him a breather with the Warriors up 13 points in the third period.
“I wanted to stay in the game at that point,” Durant said, “but the best part about it, I trust Coach and we can move past those conversations pretty quick. I’m glad we got the W, though.”
The only time the Rockets were able to remotely slow down Durant was when Paul delivered an elbow to his backside, knocking Durant to the ground. Afterward, Durant told Yahoo Sports, “I didn’t feel anything.” Durant added that after seeing a replay of the incident, he respected Paul’s competitiveness. Paul had earlier shouted for Durant to “play ball” after Durant complained to an official. The 2017 Finals MVP didn’t have to be told twice. He really didn’t need to be told once, as his teammates all mentioned that Durant was especially focused coming into this game.
Durant has the power to end the suspense and turn what has mostly been a lopsided postseason into a little less fun for everyone. Houston constructed its team with the intent of upending the Warriors, adding more perimeter defenders in P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute. Trevor Ariza has had a long career harassing elite scorers but at one point in the first half, Durant shouted out, matter of factly, “He can’t guard me!” And, really, who can?
The Rockets could try something different in the next game, like send double-teams much quicker or perhaps throw the rangy Clint Capela on him to mix up the coverages. But loading up on Durant could create more opportunities for Curry — remember him? — the only two-time MVP in this series. Or Klay Thompson, who blew 3-point kisses to the crowd while scoring 28 points and had a wonderful performance in playing the role of Curry in Game 1. “He stole like 10 of my threes that I usually take. I want them back,” Curry said with a laugh about Thompson.
With Curry still recovering from a knee injury, the Rockets targeted him on defense, ruthlessly and repeatedly, with Harden. Cleveland implemented a similar strategy with Kyrie Irving in the 2016 NBA Finals and it effectively wore down Curry so much that he couldn’t get past Kevin Love late in Game 7. If his current ailment has made this postseason more laborious, Curry wouldn’t admit it, although he did acknowledge tweaking an injury during the game (“I’ll be fine,” he said). But the Warriors are better prepared to withstand Curry not playing at his showboating best because Durant is there to tip the seesaw, like the big kid at the park. If Curry gets going, however, thanks for coming out, folks.
Kerr said before the game that some of the Warriors’ struggles to maintain their edge this season was the result of making these long, postseason runs. He compared their situation to kids on a road trip, repeatedly asking, “Are we there yet?” The Warriors aren’t there yet, but they can see the destination in their sights and that requires seven more wins. Houston has their attention and they believe there is still room for improvement. “I don’t know if we’re at our peak,” Durant said. “I think we could be better.”
The Warriors once had the charm of a cool, underground band on an independent label. But their ambition for more hits attracted them to Durant, who doesn’t go long without reminding everyone in the league that there are levels to this. While some like to complain that the Warriors aren’t as fun now that there appears to be some inevitability to them winning it all (barring injury, of course), truth be told, they had detractors rooting for them to fail before Durant came.
Houston won 65 games and proudly boasted its arrival as a rival. The Warriors have always been amused by the Rockets’ gumption but have never engaged in a back-and-forth, with one player telling Yahoo Sports, “We have hardware. What do we need to say?” They also have Durant. And that speaks louder than just about anything these days.
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