Heading into Tuesday night's Game 1 of the NBA's Western Conference Finals, the parallels between last night's Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers from Game 1 the series before were all right there.
Like the Clippers coming off their seven game slugfest with the Spurs, the Rockets were fresh off an improbable Game 6 road win in Los Angeles and a close out Game 7 win at home. Like the Clippers in Game 1 of their series with the Rockets, the Rockets were decided underdogs against a well rested Warriors outfit, albeit for different reasons than the Clippers (Clippers were underdogs because of Chris Paul's hamstring injury, the Rockets were just thought to be inferior to the Warriors, period).
Of course, we know how Game 1 versus the Clippers wound up. The Clips pulled off the upset against the Rockets, providing momentum that eventually gave them a 3-1 lead in the series. Could the Rockets do likewise on Tuesday night, pulling off the upset as 10 point underdogs in Oakland against the best regular season team in the league?
The answer was no, the Warriors won the game by a final score of 110-106, largely on the strength of two runs, a 25-6 run to close out the first half and an 11-0 run from 5:15 to 2:00 remaining in the game. That was it. Warrior basketball. That said, there was plenty to take away from this game to where I'd be ridiculously nervous right now if I were holding a "Warriors -850" ticket for them to win this series. The Rockets have answers to some of the Warriors questions. They have a chance, and I didn't really think that 24 hours ago.
What did we like and what did we not like? Let's do this in "4 Winners, 4 Losers" format, shall we?
4. James Harden
After a series that was, often times, lackluster for the MVP runner up against the Clippers, Harden reached back for some of his vintage stuff, in particular during a fourth quarter spurt when he scored 10 points in 3:30 to pull the Rockets into a dead heat with the Warriors. Harden wound up one assist away from a triple double on 11-20 shooting, and gave hope to any Rockets fan waiting for a signature performance to carry this team to at least one win on his own in this series (which the Rockets will need at some point if they're going to pull off the upset).
3. Shaun Livingston
There was a time when Livingston was supposed to be the next big thing at the point guard position. Eschewing a scholarship to Duke to head straight to the NBA, he was picked just three picks after Dwight Howard in the 2004 NBA Draft. Then in 2007, this happened...
…and everything changed. Livingston went from the next Magic Johnson to the next Kevin Ollie, playing on eight different teams over the next seven years. Rocket fans may even remember that he was briefly a Rocket back in the summer of 2012, but was cut before the 2012-2013 season started. Now, Livingston's a key guy off the bench for the best team in the league, and on Tuesday night he was the "x factor," scoring 18 points in 29 minutes with a +16 plus/minus rating while he was on the floor. More importantly, his versatility allowed the Warriors to go with a lethal small ball lineup when Andrew Bogut left with foul trouble. Livingston was huge.
2. Clint Capela
Speaking of knee injuries, we will wait and see what the prognosis is on Dwight Howard's left knee tomorrow. More on that in a minute. The good news is that, when Howard went out of the game, Capela came in and gave the Rockets 13 really productive minutes, productive enough to where factions of the Rockets Twitterverse were clamoring for him as Dwight tried to shrug off the knee sprain. Capela gave the Rockets nine points and four rebounds. It will be interesting to see how Capela gets used and how much leeway Kevin McHale feels the rookie gives him in resting Howard in longer stretches.
1. Steph Curry
Curry showed why he's the MVP, as he was the only Warrior doing much of anything from distance (6-11 from three), and his stat sheet was fairly well stuffed with 34 points on 13-22 shooting. There's an odd dynamic with Curry's threes, as about half of them seem to come at pivotal, near backbreaking points in the game and, moreover, seem to have a similar effect on the Oakland crowd that a dunk has on other NBA home crowds. It's almost like Curry's threes in that building are worth six given the residual effect they have in crowd noise and energy. He's just really good, a true embodiment of the word "valuable."
4. Terrence Jones
At this point, I'm trying to come up with a cross sport analogy for Jones' penchant for missing layups from in close or getting his shot swatted back in his face because he chooses not to jump. I mean, how else do you describe this? It's almost sad now, to the point where I cringe every time Jones touches the ball in the lane. You just know there's like an 80 percent chance it ends poorly. I think the closest thing I can think of off the top of my head is Jacoby Jones' fielding punts his first few years in the NFL, where there was impending doom every time the ball was sailing toward him in Texans territory. Jones (Terrence, that is) is a mess right about now.
3. Either Jahlil Okafor or Karl-Anthony Towns
Before the game last night, the NBA held its 2015 Draft Lottery, and the top four picks wound up as follows: 1. Minnesota, 2. LA Lakers, 3. Philadelphia, 4. New York Knicks. This basically means the following:
a.) The Sixers failed, once again, at tanking. In the second consecutive two player draft (Wiggins and Parker last season, Okafor and Towns this season), they wound up with the third pick. You suck, Philly.
b.) That period of time for about six weeks after Carmelo Anthony announced he was done for the year, when the Knicks were routinely having double digit spreads covered easily by their opponents, it all went for naught. Have fun with that, Phil Jackson.
c.) This may be the first draft where guys openly campaign to be the second pick in the draft instead of the first. I mean, where would you rather go? Minnesota or LA? Would it surprise anyone if Okafor and Towns had a battle of dueling criminal incidents these next few weeks to discourage the Timberwolves from taking them? Hell, I'd do it!
2. Jason Terry
Jason Terry has hit some big shots for the Rockets this season. His jumper to make Game 6 of the Clippers series a 108-102 Rocket lead will always be remembered by me as the true moment I felt they would win that game. That said, if he is going to shoot 2-9 like he did last night, McHale may need to go to Pablo Prigioni, or even better, go with Harden as the point guard with Ariza, Brewer, and Josh Smith as wings. McHale finally went with that lineup at nut cutting time, after seemingly insisting on having a "true" point guard on the floor at all times.
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1. Dwight Howard
I almost feel dirty doling out criticism of Howard when, like most sane people, I am hoping and praying for good news on his left knee these next two days. However, one of the things that I said in my series preview yesterday morning was this:
During that historic Game 6 comeback, the Rockets went away from feeding Dwight Howard in the low post. Too often in that series, the Rockets tried to make Howard a focal point by dumping it down to him in the low post, and he's just not that guy. He's more skilled than most big men, but this just in, there are hardly any skilled big men! For how often Dwight's post touches end in something negative (left handed flip tosses at the rim, turnovers in traffic, missed foul shots), he sure did get a lot of them. In Game 6, during the comeback, he became exclusively a screener and a board crasher offensively. GOOD! This should always be his role on offense, now and forever.
For whatever reason, probably to try to get Andrew Bogut in foul trouble, the Rockets felt compelled to feed Dwight the ball like he's Hakeem Olajuwon. The end result was five first half turnovers for Howard, two of which sparked 7-0 and 19-4 runs, and the other three of which occurred during those two runs. Dwight is not good enough as a post up option to make him a focal point. He just isn't. That said, I'd rather McHale have the chance to screw up how he uses Dwight than not have the choice to use him at all. Get well, Dwight.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast.