Pre-Game: The Beautiful Game.
Kevin Durant took a lot of shit when he signed with the Warriors. He was pilloried for “ring chasing” and for being “soft” (a cupcake), not being a “Real Man.” He still hears it.
Given his physical gifts, mental acuity and disciplined work habits, KD should transcend the team, the Alpha Dog Leader of the Pack. He should get the ball every time and go it alone because he can score every time over hapless defenders. They say.
But it doesn’t work that way, and it won’t. It didn’t when KD played in Oklahoma City’s heavy isolation offense. And it doesn’t when Houston plays heavy isolation.
Durant came to the Dubs because he’s a basketball savant and he wanted to play basketball; a team game with players and ball in constant complex movement. Isolation ball, as we saw in Game One, slows the game to a crawl, focusing all the attention on one player, freezing the others.
Will the Rock Heads change? They should hit more shots. They must improve their defense. But will James Harden continue to dribble 22 of the 24 seconds of each possession?
For the Rockets to survive, they will have to conjure up some team “spirit.”
Otherwise, it will be a shorter, less dramatic series than most expected.
KD and his team expect no less.
First Quarter: Mission Street Sports Bar.
The Rockets do some quick conjuring.
They get off to another fast start. But it’s not James Harden Dancing with the Stars. In fact, it’s not offense.
It’s defense. Houston doesn’t score much in the opening moments but they flumox the Dubs. They force fumble after bad pass after bad shot after offensive foul. The Rockets come out so much quicker, so much meaner, the Dubs look like they’re playing an Old Timer’s Game of patty-cake.
The Dubs’ major weakness, other than complacency, is the propensity to throw away the ball. In the first five minutes, they turn the ball over five times, and Houston is off to the races.
There’s a constant din at the Mission Street Sports Bar, a cavernous space with more screens per capita than many nations. And a small movie screen playing to the theater-like setup in back.
The crowd is large and animated and not too bummed by the opening quarter. “Hell,” says Dave, “who didn’t expect Houston to come out and throw the first punch?”
Dave’s confident. He wears a “Strength in Numbers” shirt and drinks a gin and tonic. Not to worry, Another guy tells me as he’s been telling “everybody the Rockets are going to win tonight, then you see, the Warriors will win two at Oracle and then take Game Five in Houston or Game Six in Oakland. You see?”
I see the Dubs down by five after one. It could be worse.
Two things stand out. Make that three.
- Houston has come to play a team game.
- Defense makes the difference.
- Mission Street Sports Bar is cooler than I expected. And the wings look exceptional. “I hear they’re good,” says Dave. “Not exceptional.”
Second Quarter: Dr. Teeth/Barrel Proof.
Dr. Teeth is packed. Overflowing onto the street and into Barrel Proof, which still has breathing space.
The crowd in Dr. Teeth seems more optimistic. The Barrel Proof crowd, not so much. They seem more into their drinks.
And who can blame them? The Rockets open the second quarter with a 12-5 run, making three three-point shots, while the Dubs make one.
With seven minutes to go, Klay Thompson hits the Dubs’ first three-point shot of the night. The score is 40-35.
Bedlam in Dr. Teeth! A hush in Houston.
Over the next 45 seconds, P.J. Tucker hits two three-point shots for Houston. Who?
P.J. Tucker, a guy they picked up in the offseason. He’s known as a “three and D” guy. A good defensive player and three-point shooter. In Game One, Tucker had 1 point.
Houston makes two more threes while the Dubs, not named KD, take and miss bad shots. In two and a half minutes, a five-point lead balloons to fourteen points.
As the Dubs try to stop Houston from hitting three-point shots, the Rockets drive past them. Often it’s Steph Curry who’s getting beaten as they go after him time and time again.
With a chance to cut the lead and end the half on an up note, the Dubs give up three ugly (or beautiful) Houston dunks.
On the last, Trevor Ariza drives the open lane while four Dubs stand at attention, like the Queen’s Guard, to watch him soar by.
Bedlam in Houston. The crowd at Dr. Teeth orders another drink and emerges into the setting sun to get stoned.
Houston leads 64-50.
“Desperation,” says J. on the way to 16th Street. “Houston knows if they lose tonight, they’re finished. Like Game Four of last year’s finals in Cleveland. They want it more. Golden State got what they came for: a split.”
That’s what it looked like. Houston’s intensity factor is off the charts. They have definitely taken it to the Dubs.
But the Dubs are the best third-quarter team in the league. Many’s the time this year, they fell behind in the first half only to come roaring back in the third quarter.
Third Quarter: Bar San Pancho.
Back to Bar San Pancho to meet some friends as gloomy as me. For reasons unknown, the atmosphere in San Pancho is not gloomy at all. Not optimistic. Not raucous and exuberant. Not overflowing. But not gloomy.
Even though the Dubs don’t roar.
KD keeps the Dubs in the game. That’s it. Houston put Trevor Ariza on him and Ariza has bothered him and made him get the ball out of position. Still, Durant can score, so the game is not out of reach.
But KD needs help and Houston has shut down both Klay and Steph from long range.
Amped by their defensive effort, the Rockets don’t stand around. They whip the ball to open shooters for easy threes or driving dunks.
The blonde sitting next to me says “They look like the Warriors.” She’s right.
Fourth Quarter: Bar San Pancho.
I ordered wings in the third quarter, after the Dubs (KD) had cut the lead to 10. By the fourth quarter, they still hadn’t come back.
The Dubs have been out of it all game. Yet they begin the fourth quarter playing tough defense, and Steph finally hits a three.
With eight minutes left, the Rockets have the ball and lead by 11. Chris Paul tries to dance but gets stopped. He passes to Eric Gordon who is being defended by Draymond Green. Not only doesn’t Green let Gordon drive. He doesn’t let him pass, and actually pushes Gordon further away from the basket. Outstanding defense.
Just before time runs out, Gordon throws a desperation shot. It goes in. And the game goes into garbage time.
The wings weren’t bad, and because they took so long in coming, I got them for free. Best thing that happened all night.
Rock Heads 127. Dubs 105.
Post Game: Delirium.
Everybody’s gone home. I think I will, too.
The Rockets showed tonight that they are more than Rock Heads. They have movable parts, and Harden actually passed the ball on more than one occasion. They played much more of a team game.
The Dubs’ penchant for turnovers, and their recent difficulties shooting three-point shots were exposed. KD scored 38 points. The Dubs needed him to score 60.
Houston mercilessly targeted Steph Curry on defense, and he got beaten for 20 points. Worse, his three-point shot has mysteriously disappeared over the past two games. It’s hard to know to what degree he’s still bothered by his injury, by Houston’s defense, by Houston’s offense, or all of the above. Whatever, he has not been “himself” these past two games.
Notoriously, the Dubs hate to lose. On Sunday, they can get revenge at Oracle.