The Golden State Warriors pretty much cruised to a 119-106 victory against the Rockets in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, and the separation between these two teams — not merely for this game, but really for this entire series looking ahead — comes down to two things: margin for error, and degree of difficulty. 

Put another way, everything the Warriors do is easy. Everything the Rockets do is hard. The Warriors don’t have to be perfect. The Rockets, for the most part, do. The Warriors can survive a relatively pedestrian 18 points from Stephen Curry because they have these two fellas named Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson combining for 65 points on better-than-50-percent shooting in Game 1. 

The Rockets, on the other hand, cannot survive merely an OK performance from Chris Paul (23 points and 11 boards, not as much impact as that line would indicate), even if James Harden goes nuclear with 41 points on 5 of 9 from deep, as he did in Game 1. That’s the extreme degree of difficulty the Rockets are facing: Their likely MVP played like an MVP, the Warriors’ two-time MVP didn’t, and Houston was still running uphill all night. 

What more can the Rockets do?

Well, for starters, they’re going to have to make more 3-pointers, plain and simple. This is almost always the blueprint for underdogs, to shrink the gap with math, and it just so happens that bombing away from deep is more or less the entire focus of Houston’s game. Or, at least it was during the regular season. In the playoffs, the Rockets have not shot the 3-ball well, and that continued in Game 1 with a collective 35-percent effort from downtown. 

And even that number is deceiving. Remove Harden from the equation, and Houston shot 28 percent from downtown. This, to some degree, is the cost of Harden doing all your cooking. Nobody else gets hot because they almost never touch the ball, and then when they do, often late in the shot clock after Harden or Paul has dribbled the air out of the possession, they’re expected to just hit a bunch of triples. Doesn’t work that way. Not against the Warriors. 

Against other teams, those stationary shooters waiting to feast off Harden’s dishes might at least enjoy the luxury of an open shot. But Golden State is so long and athletic, so disciplined and motivated on the defensive end, and so willing to let Harden and Paul play one-on-one in the interest of staying attached to shooters, that all those 3-pointers are contested. So it’s not as simple as saying Paul, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah Moute — who combined to go 6 of 23 from deep — need to make more shots.

Well, it is that simple.

It’s just not that easy. 

These were tough, contested, largely out-of-rhythm shots the Rockets had to take outside Harden in Game 1, and they’ll likely be of the same variety for the rest of this series. That’s simply the challenge in front of Houston, the challenge for anyone trying to take down maybe one of the greatest teams in NBA history. Nobody thought it would be easy. It might be even more difficult than people expected.

Perhaps some of that is a product of our apathy toward Golden State’s greatness. They underwhelmed in the regular season, didn’t have Curry to open the playoffs, and now here we are being reminded just how lethal they are. Durant was a complete monster in Game 1. Houston threw every defender it had at him, and he didn’t even see them. Didn’t even feel their presence. 

The Warriors have become a much more mid-range dependent team than people realize, and they are proof that that formula can still work when you have a guy like Durant, who simply caught the ball at his preferred spots, took a quick snapshot of his options, and turned and shot over helpless defenders. 

Best player on the floor taking matters into his own hands. 

The way basketball used to be played. 

But the difference between Durant and Harden’s dominant games is that Durant’s doesn’t come so much at the expense of the overall involvement of the rest of the team. Thompson got more open shots than a shooter of his caliber should ever get, and he used them to the tune of 28 splashy points. Curry took a back seat, and therein lies the difference between Durant playing in OKC with Westbrook and playing in Golden State with Curry. In Golden State, he never has to worry about his wingman interrupting his flow. When Durant has it going, Curry will defer all night long. Happily.

Durant is the main reason the game looks so much easier for the Warriors than it does the Rockets. He is a perpetual mismatch. In Game 1, Houston chose to guard him straight up with just about every defender on its roster at some point, and if they do that again in Game 2, he’ll probably roast them again. Problem is, your only other option is to double-team him, and the second you do that, the Warriors are going to slice you to death with cuts to the basket and open 3-pointers. 

The Warriors can beat you so many ways, and they don’t even have to play their best to do it. When they do play their best, forget about it. After Game 1, that appears all the Rockets can hope for: that the Warriors don’t play their best in Game 2, and for three other games in this series, and the Rockets do. 

They have to play an almost perfect game to keep up with the Warriors. It’s a tall order to do that once, let alone four times. Maybe taller than even Houston thought it would be.


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