HOUSTON — James Harden may be a Kia MVP finalist and lead singer of the Houston Rockets but he wasn’t too proud to beg the other day when he sent out an SOS to his teammates.
In this case: Save Our Season.
“I can’t do it by myself,” Harden said.
Harden pumped 41 points yet came up empty, in terms of the Game 1 score and the quest to keep home-court advantage against the Warriors. Aside from an additional lift from Chris Paul, the Rockets offered little else and so Harden felt compelled to grab a bullhorn and let it be known: This isn’t how we got here.
Evidently the Rockets listened to their finest player, their gut feeling and the drumbeat of desperation and decided to do something about it. And so the Western Conference finals, along with the Rockets, are far from done. There’s more to the Rockets, meaning, beyond what they opened the series with.
It’s all even at one game each because Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Trevor Ariza finally lent a hand, a foot, a well-placed elbow and especially a jump shot to the cause. The Rockets felt normal in Wednesday’s 127-105 wipeout win because they felt whole. They took the lead almost from the jump, withstood a few teases from the Warriors in the second half and cruised. They looked more like the well-balanced Golden State Warriors than they did themselves.
“They knew what they had to do and they did it,” said Warriors guard Stephen Curry.
Harden and Paul took most of the shots but the others made most of the plays that caused the beat-down. Ariza attacking and slashing? Done. Tucker dropping 3s from the corner? Yes. Gordon going iso from the key and hitting from 25 feet? Absolutely.
These three are players who chip in and help out for the Rockets, usually yielding to Harden and Paul — or at least orbiting around them, looking for their opening. But Wednesday was a bit of a role switch. At times, Ariza and Gordon and Tucker took turns taking over the game and pushed the lead far beyond the Warriors’ reach.
Tucker and Ariza were a combined 3-for-11 shooting in 58 minutes in Game 1. From a functional standpoint, they were no more than hood ornaments. But they joined Gordon and were straight fire Wednesday. They combined for 68 points (compared to 43 for Harden-Paul) and more importantly were efficient with their aim (Ariza, 7-for-9 shooting; Tucker, 8-for-9 shooting; Gordon, 8-for-15).
Even better for Houston? Harden and Paul looked for them constantly and fed them the ball. That’s called respect.
“They got exactly what they wanted tonight,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “They got everybody going. I mean, Ariza, Tucker, Gordon. They got everybody involved. The exact opposite of Game 1. They brought it. They got it done.”
The 22 points represent a career playoff-high for Tucker, and almost matched the combined total of Curry and Klay Thompson combined, and this came with a bit of irony as well. Tucker was signed as a free agent last summer precisely for this reason: to give Houston an edge at both ends in a possible Western Conference playoffs showdown against the Warriors.
Tucker, however, wasn’t the Rockets’ first choice. That would be Andre Iguodala, and somewhat understandably so. Signing Iguodala would have stripped the Warriors of a veteran with strong postseason credentials. Imagine if Iguodala left the Warriors, joined Houston and helped eliminate his old team?
“We tried,” D’Antoni said. “It was a no-brainer to try. I don’t know how close we were. I knew it would be hard.”
Instead, Iguodala stayed put and the Rockets’ Plan B was Tucker, a rugged forward who brought a reliable 3-point stroke from the corners and a no-nonsense approach.
So it was with some added satisfaction that Tucker has at least shown up in this series while Iguodala is, for now, living off his reputation. Iguodala had five points and three turnovers Wednesday and, for the second straight game, didn’t leave any meaningful impression. It’s the second time this season where Tucker hurt the Warriors. The first came in the season-opener, when he went for 22 points and some clutch free throws in Houston’s win in Oakland.
“The guy’s a warrior,” said D’Antoni. “He finds a way to affect the game.”
Gordon had a Splash Brothers-like game with six 3-pointers and 27 points (matching Harden) in 32 minutes, which came a few hours after he was announced as a finalist for the Kia Sixth Man award.
“I just wanted to be aggressive,” Gordon said. “It’s always good to be on a good team which makes my job easier. It’s been a blast since I’ve been here.”
Ariza was more economical than usual from deep, taking only three 3-pointers. Instead, he relied on his dribble game, which perhaps caught the Warriors by surprise. Scoring in transition and in the half court, Ariza finished plays and forced the Warriors’ defense to pay close attention instead of doubling Harden. After major foul trouble in Game 1, he avoided that and got his game on track.
“I forgot all about Game 1,” Ariza said. “I was excited to be on the court. I focused all of my thoughts into this game and what I could do to help the team.”
Was this a fleeting sighting for the Rockets that’ll either fade or disappear completely when the series shifts to Oakland? D’Antoni doesn’t think so. He’s leaning on a season’s worth of evidence that tells him a 65-win team is more liable to reflect Game 2 than Game 1. For the Rockets’ playoff health, that’d better be true.
“You’re not going to come in and change the way you play,” D’Antoni said. “We are who we are, and we had to be who we are. We just did it better and for longer (tonight). We’re very comfortable about who we are. We can beat anybody, anywhere and anytime playing like the way we play. It’s effective. It’s efficient.”
For the next three off-days it’s the Warriors who must solve mysteries for a change for their home games in Oakland. Curry was chilly in Game 2, raising questions about his recovery from his MCL injury and/or his ability to shake free of Houston’s defense. Meanwhile, Draymond Green’s biggest contribution to the series so far was his Game 1 shove of Harden.
“We don’t really worry about who we’re playing against,” Tucker said. “If we come out and be some dogs and do what we did tonight, it doesn’t matter. But if we don’t, then we see the results in Game 1. So it’s not about chess match or what they’re doing. It’s about us.”
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Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years.
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