The defending champions opened their postseason run midday on Saturday, and they immediately went to work dispelling several long-held incorrect notions as they've done again and again in the Draymond Green era.
73 wins in response to the hecklers clucking "lucky" at their previous championship run. A 34-point win in The Land against Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving and LeBron James after Love and Irving sat out against the Warriors in the Finals, and James couldn't help but bring up that fact in relation to his team's Finals defeat.
The arrival of the postseason does not inherently signal a structural change to the game that favors lower pace, which some might assume would derail the Warriors; as with the regular season, the better team will control the pace (not that the Houston Rockets were keen to slow down the game, either). The Warriors are not susceptible to physicality more so than any other team — that is merely the fabricated hallucination of ex-players 20 years removed from their playing days attempting to rationalize a solution to how they would defeat a team a galactic light-years ahead of them in terms of talent.
For an all-time great two-season run of dominance, there are few contemporary and past players ready to accept that the Warriors are winning because they are simply better than any challenger. There has to be, the ex-players suggest, some extenuating factor besides the talent gap.
That talent gap which no one wants to acknowledge was evident in the Warriors' vulgar display of power over the Rockets yesterday. After the usual few moments of adrenaline-fueled shakiness, the Warriors settled into their groove on offense and defense against the Rockets and the game was effectively over. Better players with better chemistry and synergy in a superior system. Much like the West's other top three first round match-ups, the NBA's advertising of the sound and fury of the postseason is ringing hollow.
The wealth gap in talent widened dramatically in the West this year, and it was reflected in the Warriors' and Oklahoma City Thunder's 20+ point victories over the hapless Rockets and Dallas Mavericks, respectively. The Memphis Grizzlies' prospects against the San Antonio Spurs looks similarly grim.
The Rockets have a decent chance to take the series to five games. What they lack in consistency they make up for in sporadic supernovas of synergistic shooting. Sometimes they even play team defense on accident. Occasional blasts of decency are not enough to unseat these Warriors -- it wasn't a year ago with a more consistently focused Rockets squad, and it certainly isn't in the ongoing series today. The Rockets have embraced the talent gap, and have turned to the Curry Rules to try and claw (literally) into a more even dog fight.
Bump. Every. Chance. You. Get.
Watch: Beverley, Curry get physical
The Rockets pulled out their most desperate tactics early with Patrick Beverley openly swinging at Steph Curry in the first quarter.
Stephen Curry was ran into, held, scratched at, grabbed, and overall given Corey Joseph flashbacks in the entire first half. In the now Twitter-infamous exchange, resident pest Patrick Beverley and Curry got into a shoving match which was a relative Malice in the Palace for the typically even-keeled Curry in the first quarter. All of the grabbing only served to stoke the fire which at times flickered off during the Warriors' historic regular season.
Curry ultimately lit up the Rockets, ringing their bell to the tune of 24 points in under a total of 20 minutes. His minutes were limited after a stomach-churning sequence when Curry turned his left ankle on a jerky change-of-direction defensive play on James Harden. He would return to the game after a brief visit to the locker room but was visibly wincing as he jogged around. He would return to the locker room after this stint, and ultimately end the game laughing on the bench.
Curry reportedly lobbied the coaching staff to return into the game but, through an unknown combination of the game being out of hand and coach Steve Kerr being cautious with the MVP, his pleas fell on deaf ears. He is now listed as questionable for Game 2, in a move that disguises the fluid situation from the fans and the Rockets.
Outside of Curry's unfortunate (and unfortunately familiar) situation, the game was an end-to-end dominant outing. Predictably, Festus Ezeli and Andre Iguodala returned to their regular rotational minutes after being slowly weaned into the action in the closing weeks of the regular season (until the garbage time fourth quarter). Iguodala and Shaun Livingston reprised their roles as the most consistent bench players, as they were by far the most heavily used bench players at 26 and 24 minutes played respectively. The bench notably held their ground against the Rockets, with only Anderson Varejao (-9) with a strongly negative +/-. With the blowout in full force by halftime, Kerr was able to stick to his regular season rotations. No one played more than Green's 33 minutes.
The Rockets did not have an answer for a motivated Curry. Coach JB Bickerstaff attempted to counter Green with Trevor Ariza at the four, which ultimately did little to stymie the mismatch -- Green still found openings on the perimeter -- although the Warriors did go away from the Curry-Green PnR, which may have been affected by the presence of Ariza.
Harden was matched up against Harrison Barnes, which duped the Warriors into probing inside against the stout guard on the post. Harden guarding the post may be the only situation in which he is a decent defender: his sturdy frame allows him to absorb contact, he doesn't have to keep track of Otto Porter Jr on the perimeter off-ball, and he doesn't have to move his feet very much as he defends his man.
On defense, the Warriors looked every bit as dominant as one would expect from a team that's won 12 of the past 13 meetings against their opponent. James Harden has nightmares of the thicket of limbs he faces against the Warriors. For the first time in almost two years, he was shut out from the free throw line. Harden found a rhythm in the third quarter, scoring 10 points in the frame and finding offense by hanging around the perimeter in lieu of driving on Klay Thompson or (largely) Iguodala. His -27 +/- in 32 minutes was the worst mark on the team, reflective of how reliant the Rockets are on Harden's offense, and how poorly they perform when that offense has been effectively shut down.
Dwight Howard had a decent outing in a game in which a decent outing made him the top performer for the Rockets. Ultimately, however, he is too uninvolved in the Rockets' system offensively for him to sway a game the same way in which Harden does every night. The Rockets as a whole shot 35% from the field.
And therein lies the talent gap: without Harden performing at a Herculean level, the Rockets do not have the firepower to hang around with the Warriors. In the Rockets' lone victory over the Warriors in two years (including two playoff series), Harden was a +21, with 45 points and 7-11 three point shooting. It is absolutely necessary for Harden to perform at that level for the Rockets to hang a loss on the Warriors in the first round.
Game 2 is scheduled for tomorrow at 7:30 in Oakland.