If you’re just waiting for a Golden State-Cleveland matchup in the NBA Finals then the conference finals openers of the last two nights didn’t give you any reason for pause.
The Warriors got a stiff challenge from Houston, who played as well as you can expect on the road. The Cavs were tied at the half on the road in Atlanta. Both Golden State and Cleveland still won and their opponents suffered key injuries that could turn both of these series into very abbreviated versions.
Steph Curry and James Harden put on a tremendous show. Harden distributed the ball well early and then once his willingness to share was established, he put on a dazzling one-on-one display, from a beautiful running back to a step-back jumper that was a work of art. Harden was 11-for-20 from the floor and finished with 28 points.
But as was emphasized in this space prior to the series, Harden can get his numbers, do it efficiently and Houston can still lose. Curry more than answered Harden, dropping 34 points of his own and hitting 6-of-11 from behind the arc. He also hit a brilliant moving jumper to close the first half, and a second quarter where Golden State came from 16 down to take a three-point lead in the blink of an eye.
What Houston needed to do was dominate down low. But instead, Golden State’s Draymond Green continued to rebound the basketball, getting 12 boards and Houston’s small 47-43 edge on the glass isn’t going to be enough. Not when the opponent has Curry and Klay Thompson in the backcourt.
Which brings us to Dwight Howard. He had 13 rebounds, but scored only seven points and more important, left the game with a knee injury. He’s listed as questionable for tonight’s Game 2. I take “questionable” to mean the player will probably go, but in a series where anything less than dominance is going to be insufficient, this was the last problem Houston coach Kevin McHale needed.
Thus, the Rockets are coming off a game where Harden was great, where Golden State as a team shot a mediocre 10-for-29 from behind the arc and where Houston got a big early lead…and they still lost, 110-106. Now Howard is slowed and it’s hard to be optimistic at Houston’s chances for any more than picking up one win on their home floor.
This series looked on paper like it might be pretty compelling—the battle of the Hawks’ balance against the greatness of LeBron looked close. And for one half last night, that’s how it shaped up, a 51-51 tie at intermission. Then in the second half, it was Cleveland that showed the floor balance.
They took control in the third quarter and while the game was always competitive, there was never a point after halftime where you really thought Atlanta was going to win.
LeBron’s 31/8/6 line on 12-for-26 shooting is manageable for the Hawks, but J.R. Smith shot out of his mind. He drilled 8-of-12 from three-point range. If the game were just about that, Atlanta could be a little more relaxed—no one is going to beat Cleveland if Smith is going to shoot like that and it’s completely unreasonable to think he’ll do it again.
But Atlanta can’t be cavalier (no pun intended) about the way they got beat up down low. Al Horford’s presence was non-existent. Paul Millsap only had 13 points and jacked up a couple ill-advised treys when Cleveland was gaining control. More important, they were beaten on the boards by counterparts Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgof, and the Cavs won the rebounding battle 49-37.
In the fourth quarter the worst-case scenario nearly unfolded. DeMarre Carroll, the team’s best player and best perimeter defender (i.e., the only one with a snowball’s chance at keeping LeBron from going crazy) went down with a knee injury. An MRI revealed no structural damage, so he’s fine for the long-term and will still play in the short-term. But how effective can he be?
I’m continuing to hope for some competitiveness in both series, as the Game 2 matchups go tonight and tomorrow. But the results of Game 1 in both East & West weren’t promising in that regard.
Golden State will host Houston tonight (9 PM ET, ESPN) and Cleveland tries to get a second win on the road in Atlanta on Friday (8:30 PM ET, TNT).