OAKLAND – The Warriors occasionally must be reminded of what they need to do to be at their best. Their cue Tuesday night came halfway through the second quarter.
That’s when coach Steve Kerr, his team trailing 49-33, opened the kennel door at Oracle Arena and unleashed the hounds.
With alpha dog Draymond Green leading the pack, the Warriors hit the Houston Rockets with a relentless defensive attack that needed little more than five minutes to gobble up a 16-point deficit and clear the path to a 110-106 win in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.
A lineup featuring Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry, Shaun Livingston and Green sparked a blistering 25-6 run. The Rockets spent the rest of the night trying to regain the lead and never did.
“We've done that all season, through the regular season,” Curry said of falling behind and coming back. “We don't want to be in the hole, especially in the first half. That's not how we envision the game going. But we fight, and that's the one thing you can count on with this team, we're going to fight and get back in the games.”
No group of Warriors fights harder than Kerr’s hounds, the small lineup that places Green in the role of a 6-foot-7 center. In this instance, that meant battling 6-11 Rockets center Dwight Howard.
Green did well. Exceptionally well. Between his solo effort and occasional double-teams, Howard had more turnovers (three) than points (2) in the quarter.
“They struggled a bit with (our) small lineup when they were big with Dwight,” Green said. “That’s what kind of changed the game for us.
“Next game, he may completely dominate. I just happened to be able to get the better of him today.”
Green’s pesky, snug defense clearly annoyed Howard, who at one point swung his left arm in an attempt to swat Green away. That only resulted in an offensive foul that fueled the Warriors’ rally.
The Rockets don’t know when or if they’ll see Howard again. He bruised his left knee when it was crashed into by teammate Josh Smith in the first quarter. Though Howard returned several times, he had lost some mobility and effectiveness.
He also may have been somewhat demoralized, as Houston outplayed the Warriors for most of the half and went into the locker room trailing, victimized by a Warriors team with 7-foot center Andrew Bogut and 6-11 backup Festus Ezeli on the bench.
“We like to have (Bogut) on the floor for defense, they like to have Dwight on the floor for defense,” Kerr said. “And it kind of went back and forth. But in the end, neither Dwight nor (Bogut) played a lot of minutes. So it became a small game.”
The Warriors are OK with that. It has been a staple all season.
They’re also fine with facing the Rockets with or without Howard because either way, Kerr knows he can summon the hounds and they usually attack with abandon.
Livingston was phenomenal, not only with his career-high 18 points but also by bringing life to a Warriors team that needed it.
Curry scored 11 points in the first quarter to keep the Warriors within striking distance early and scored 11 more in the fourth to finish.
Green’s line: 13 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists. Close enough to feel like a triple-double.
After going on an 11-0 run to pull out of a 97-97 tie and take a 108-97 lead with 2:01 left, the Warriors got sloppy. Three turnovers in the final 96 seconds allowed the Rockets to cut it to two with 14.6 seconds left. Remember what befell the Clippers?
Bogut was ineffective, moving slowly and grabbing only four rebounds in 16 minutes. He looked strangely out of sorts.
David Lee played only four minutes and not well at all. He was a step slow, and his typically dependable hands were not there.
The Warriors started rather tentatively, as if they didn’t know what to expect. But once they remembered they’re going no further than their defensive intensity takes them, they snapped away and were too much for the Rockets. Houston is prone to turnovers, and the Warriors forced 16. That’s what defense does, and that’s a specialty of the hounds.