HOUSTON — Steve Kerr’s tenure as coach of the Golden State Warriors has been defined by a couple of things. The first, and most obvious, is a ridiculous number of wins. Another, and more subjective, is the conservative nature of his decision-making.
Kerr has often been prodded — by the media, by the fans, even at times by his players — to go for the jugular more often. Even when Stephen Curry was at his peak a couple of years ago, Kerr resisted going away from his egalitarian, ball-movement offense to allow Curry to just run one pick and roll after another. He has constantly declined to start his best lineup — going small, and featuring Draymond Green at center — until he’s absolutely had to do so.
That’s what made Kerr’s decision to start Game 1 of the Western Conference finals Monday night with that small-ball lineup so telling of his mind-set — as well as his team’s — heading into this series.
“We felt it was important to get off to a good start,” Kerr said after Golden State emerged with a 119-106 victory over the Houston Rockets. “That’s why we made the decision [to start small]. We had good momentum from the last series, and the matchups were good.”
That explanation also leaves out something else: Golden State knew that a win Monday night — and stealing home-court advantage — could potentially end this series before it began.
Kerr’s actions underscored that belief. So did his team’s play. So, frankly, did the desperation with which the Rockets came out of the gates. The Houston players’ slumped shoulders in the final few minutes of the fourth quarter made it clear there was nothing they could do to change the outcome.
Suddenly, after spending seven months building to this moment, Houston was right back to square one — now without the added edge of the extra game at home in the series.
“Obviously we lost,” Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Now, the next most important game is Wednesday. Let’s see if we have a short memory.”
Kerr didn’t allude to it, but there is a moment in his past that is analogous to this situation, and it happened not that far from here.
In 2001, the Los Angeles Lakers — featuring prime versions of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal — came to San Antonio to face the top-seeded Spurs in the Western Conference finals. It was a highly anticipated showdown between the past two NBA champions, who were a combined 14-2 in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
The Lakers promptly won Game 1 by 14, then won Game 2, before taking the series back to Los Angeles and murdering the Spurs in Games 3 and 4 to win that series on their way to a second straight title.
That’s how fast this can get away from teams, even at the highest level. Just look at what happened to the 59-win Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference semifinals. In Game 1 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, they never trailed in regulation, lost the game and never looked like they had a chance to win the series after that.
Now, there’s still plenty of basketball to be played. The Rockets won 65 games for a reason — well, several reasons, from presumptive league MVP James Harden to Chris Paul to Clint Capela to an excellent switching defense that has confounded most opponents. The fact that it took a remarkable Kevin Durant performance to win this game was proof Houston did anything but roll over.
But all of Houston’s effort wasn’t enough for a victory. And given how the Rockets’ season ended last year — with Harden disappearing on this very court in a 39-point loss to a Spurs team without Kawhi Leonard in the West semifinals — could the Rockets lose what they have spent the past seven months working to obtain?
“We have to look at the film, see what we can do better,” Paul said.
“Obviously it’s a different team, and what not,” he added. “But, for us, our focus right now is just on Game 2.”
Golden State’s focus was clearly on Game 1. Green brought his trademark physical play early, getting a technical foul for shoving Harden for no apparent reason than to try to get in his face after Harden’s hot start.
“It’s the conference finals, and the further along you go in the playoffs, the more intensity you have to bring to win,” Green said. “Being that we’ve been in the Finals three straight years, I understand that. I know where my intensity level needs to be to help this team win games.
“So that’s what I try to do.”
The Warriors, you can be sure, have heard every bit of the talk coming out of here for the past four months about how the Rockets were ready for them. They remember Capela telling ESPN that Houston is the better team. They saw, as Kerr joked in light of the Supreme Court decision allowing states to set up legalized gambling, that they were 1.5-point underdogs before Game 1.
Golden State then went out and played like the team everyone knew existed within the one that sleepwalked its way through the regular season and still won 58 games behind the NBA’s best offense.
“Our guys have been here before,” Kerr said. “This is our fourth straight conference finals, and the first one we’ve started on the road. But our guys have a lot of experience, and they’ve felt this.
“They relish it, and think they took the challenge tonight, and played awfully well.”
The Warriors won Game 1 of a best-of-seven series Monday night. But as the crowd filed out and the Rockets slumped off the court, it felt like the life had left the place as well. That was what Kerr hoped to do by playing small in Game 1. And, by doing so, he just might have ended these Western Conference finals after only one game.