2015 Warriors Playoffs – The Battle Of MVP and Runner-Up

2015 Warriors playoffs

Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals was everything you’d expect a one vs two matchup to be.

It was billed as James Harden, the MVP runner-up, against Stephen Curry, the league MVP. And at times, the game really felt that way. It was James vs Steph.

Take Harden early in the fourth quarter. With just over nine minutes left, Harden decided to go one-on-one with Klay Thompson. He was creating small space to get off tough shot after tough shot with Klay Thompson right in his face. He scored on three straight possessions and then on two of the next four offensive possessions to tie the game.

Curry saved his best for the first and third quarters, scoring 11 and 10 points including five of his six from long distance. They never got into the my turn/your turn kind of game, but clearly, when buckets were needed, each was the go-to.

Most NBA experts slash pundits had the Warriors winning the series either in five or six games. I originally thought five games could be the end of it simply because of how the Warriors beat up on Houston in the regular season. But based on how Houston played against the LA Clippers to close them out in the second round, it’s easy to see how someone would come to the conclusion that the Rockets could take the Warriors to six games or beyond.

LA Clippers NWA

The Rockets, though seemingly flawed having to play Josh Smith so much, had a tremendous effort in game one and really pushed the Warriors thanks to Harden and Trevor Ariza. Ariza has performed in the big time before, helping the Lakers win a title. And he was huge in game one, hitting four three-pointers and scoring 20 points on just 10 shots. He swallowed up entire possessions on his own, including one late in the game when the Rockets were trying to come back. He swiped a pass, ran the floor, and hit a corner three to cut what was an 11 point deficit to just two. He was also the only Rockets starter who was positive in the plus/minus at +1.

Josh Smith played better than I thought he would, but was still forced into some bad opportunities, missing 10 shots. When Josh Smith takes six from deep, the Warriors are happy. I don’t know if we’ll see game 6 Josh in this series. Dwight Howard was limited to 26 minutes because of a knee issue, but in those 26 minutes, he had nearly as many turnovers as points (five/seven), though did pull 13 boards and made the Warriors think twice at driving to the basket.

While Curry played an excellent game, it was actually Shaun Livingston who deserves a lot of credit for keying a comeback in the second quarter that started when Steve Kerr decided to go small. Andrew Bogut got into early foul trouble. Kerr turned to David Lee who he quickly had to put back on the bench after four minutes of frustration. And then Festus Ezeli came in and held his own, but it was clear that they were better offensively without him. So Kerr turned to his secret weapon of Draymond Green at the center position and Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Steph Curry, and Shaun Livingston flanking him. The Warriors turned a 16-point deficit into a halftime lead thanks to defensive stops and running and gunning.

Livingston provides an X factor for the Warriors when he’s aggressive and going toward the hoop and not worried about missing shots. He’s an excellent passer when he’s attacking and if he has a smaller player guarding him, he can pretty much get any mid-range shot that he wants. He scored 16 points in the first half and provided the Warriors a go-to scorer to their usual go-to scorers.

Klay Thompson didn’t play all that well offensively for most of the game, shooting just 6-18, but he was effective early at getting to the rim and blowing right by James Harden. But then he also had to guard Harden which seemed to tired him out. After shooting nearly 50% from three-point land in the previous series, he was just 1-7 from distance in this game.

If Houston is going to steal one, game two might be the one to steal. It’s the same one that the Memphis Grizzlies stole from the Warriors at home. But a few things need to happen. Ariza needs to continue to play at a high level because he’s the best three and D wing they have. They need Dwight Howard to not only be healthy, but to play effectively. He can’t turn the ball over or miss easy shots from the post. And they’re going to need another scorer to help James Harden out whether it’s Jason Terry (2-9) or Corey Brewer (3-7). Those guys need to be able to keep up especially when the Warriors go small.

The Warriors have stuff to clean up as well. They did such a good job at minimizing turnovers, but got sloppy near the end. They will also need to do a better job at keeping the Rockets off the offensive boards, especially if Howard is playing. And they need to make their free throws. It’s one of the places where they should have a decided advantage. Dwight Howard and Josh Smith are both under 50% at the line in the playoffs.

Onward to game two.

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