HOUSTON — It must have felt tremendous for the Warriors to see the Houston Rockets trudging off the floor, confidence fractured, after the unceremonious demolition of the structure they spent so much time and energy constructing.
It had to be gratifying for the defending champs to hear Houston coaches and players ransacking their minds in a search for answers they’ll never find after being thoroughly outplayed in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals.
But with Game 2 looming Wednesday night, the Warriors must forget their 119-106 victory in Game 1 on Monday as quickly as they forgot their 58-win regular season.
“We’ve turned the page,” Stephen Curry said Tuesday after practice.
The only relevance of Game 1 for the Warriors is that gave them a 1-0 lead in a best-of-seven series. Nothing more.
For the Rockets, though, Game 1 was profoundly significant.
They spent a full year building their roster and adjusting their mindset, aiming for Game 1 against the Warriors. They went out and earned it. And on a night when the Warriors were 80 percent of their best selves, they lost it.
Moreover, Houston was exposed for what it is, a talented scoring unit with cracks in the defense and an obstinate offensive system that could be its doom in this series.
“It’s not like, in the playoffs, you can just change who you are,” coach Steve Kerr said. “You’ve got to be who you are and you’ve got to play the way you play — but you’ve got to do that better. That’s what everyone does. I anticipate we’ll see a lot of the same stuff Houston has been doing all year, but with more pace and more force.”
Houston’s 112.2 offensive rating in the regular season was good enough for second place, just behind the Warriors, who were at 112.3. The Rockets lead all playoff teams with 110.3 rating.
They achieved that status by relying mostly on the minds and skills of James Harden, the presumptive MVP, and veteran floor leader Chris Paul.
“They’re going to continue to James and CP and tell them to create for everybody else as well,” Kevin Durant said. “They’re going to try to move faster and play with pace. We’ve got to be prepared for anything.”
The Warriors realize that teams don’t get to the conference finals and junk the schemes that put them there.
“We do know the ball is going to be in James’ and Chris’ hands a lot because that’s what they’re really good at,” Curry said. “That’s what they do, and they’ve been really successful at it.
“At this stage of the season, you’ve established an identity. That’s true for us. It’s true for them. So it’s just a matter of who can execute better. That’s what it comes down to win a playoff series.”
The Rockets typically begin a possession with either Harden or Paul hunting for an isolation mismatch, achieved through screen-and-roll action. It’s largely one-dimensional. It’s not easy to defend, but it is simple to defend. It also allows defenses to rest when Harden or Paul dribbles down the clock.
Even as that pounding-the-rock approach resulted in three shot-clock violation turnovers in Game 1, dramatic change would be a sign of panic.
“It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, they iso! That’s all they do.’ No, it isn’t. That’s what we do best,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni told reporters Tuesday. “We scored like 60 percent of the time on it. It’s like, no, really? Like, ‘Oh, they don’t pass. Everybody stands.’ Really? Have you watched us for 82 games?
“That’s what we do. We are who we are, and we’re pretty good at it. And we can’t get off who we are. Embrace it. Just be better at who we are and don’t worry about if somebody else solves the puzzle a different way.”
The Warriors seem to have solved the Houston puzzle. They seized homecourt advantage in Game 1 and a win in Game 2 will give them control of the series.
The Rockets have nowhere to turn, making it incredibly difficult to tie the series on Wednesday — as long as the Warriors are true to their word and have filed away the results of Game 1.