HOUSTON - There are games when an athlete carries an entire team upon his shoulders through a transcendent effort. And then there are games when both teams are borne aloft.
Such was the case Monday night at the Toyota Center. We had all been waiting for Game 1 of the Western Conference final series for months, and it was every bit as riveting as we had hoped. There were shoving matches, coaching moves and counter-moves, seven ties and five lead changes in a game the Warriors won 119-106. Mostly though, there was Kevin Durant and James Harden.
Durant is a former NBA most valuable player and the reigning NBA Finals MVP. Harden is, in all likelihood, the current MVP. Both played like it Monday, and it was something to behold.
Durant finished with 37 points on 14-of-27 shooting. Harden may have been even better; he scored 41 points, hit 14 of his 24 shots and dished out seven assists. It hardly mattered how they were covered. Each had opposing bodies in his chest and hands in his face, efforts that generally proved futile.
“It’s no fun when someone’s making those type of shots, because you feel like you’re doing everything in your power to force a bad shot,” Warriors guard Klay Thompson said of Harden.
Both of these teams do a lot of switching on defense, and that game of tag played a big role in the performances of Harden and Durant. When the Rockets had the ball, they worked hard to funnel Harden into particular matchups. Young center Kevon Looney played 24 minutes off the bench for the Warriors. When he was in there, he often found himself switched onto the tricky Harden. Looney was game, but Harden victimized him several times.
And when it wasn’t Looney, it was usually Stephen Curry. The Warriors star isn’t a terrible defender, but he’s certainly the weakest link in the so-called Hamptons 5 lineup that is coach Steve Kerr’s best five-man unit. Curry looks fully recovered from his recent knee injury — when he’s shooting the ball. On defense, he doesn’t have the lateral explosiveness to stay with someone like Harden.
Time and again, Harden juked, feinted, stepped back and hit a shot over Looney or Curry, or simply flew past them to the basket.
The Rockets like to switch on the defensive end, too, and they did so on Durant.
“If you don’t switch, they’re gonna bite you with Curry and everybody else,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “They got a lot of biting.”
But Durant made a mockery of the ploy. He is a 7-footer who can handle the ball and shoot it like an illustration in a basketball textbook. Everyone on the Houston roster, it seems, wound up on Durant at some point. He picked them off one by one. At times, Luc Mbah a Moute or P.J. Tucker was stuck to Durant like a mirror image. He calmly shot over them and landed another swish.
“I think my favorite moment was the one where he drove baseline in the fourth quarter, and he rose up over two guys, like flying and leaning out of bounds,” teammate Draymond Green said. “It was kind of a stick shot. They played great defense on that play, so for him to still get that shot, it was tough.”