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5 Clutch Points: Kevin Durant comes through in bloodbath Game 1 win vs. Rockets

Kevin Durant, James Harden

The Golden State Warriors were able to hold down their home court for a 1-0 series lead against the Houston Rockets after two disappointments at Oracle Arena in the previous series against the L.A. Clippers.

A close game throughout, this 104-100 win had it all: tough competition, a game-winning dagger, and drama — lots of drama.

These are 5 Clutch Points from Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals:

A wild end to an ugly game

While gripping and entertaining, Game 1 was ugly to its core for those that love the ebb and flow of a basketball game. The Warriors and Rockets combined for a total of 45 fouls in regulation (four technicals), including 56 combined trips to the free-throw line. Choppy at best.

However, what it lacked in organic flow, Game 1 made up for with pyrotechnics in the finishing moments, including some late-game back-and-forths, a dagger 3-pointer, and some very late drama that included Chris Paul’s ejection with 4.4 seconds left in regulation.

Let’s recap a wild series of events.

The Warriors opened up a nine-point lead early in the fourth quarter, but the Rockets kept it close, first making use of Eric Gordon’s barreling style of play to get easy buckets inside while James Harden took a rest.

It would be Gordon again making things close, hitting a wing three with 2:40 left to reduce the deficit to 96-94. The Warriors kept going to the well, feeding Kevin Durant, who nailed a one-legger over Chris Paul.

Then Durant scored again over Harden to give the Warriors some cushion.

Stephen Curry, who had battled foul trouble for most of the second half, delivered a clutch-time stop on Harden, forcing the reigning MVP to step out of bounds as he waited for The Beard to take a step back.

Boasting a 100-95 lead, Harden was fouled on a drive to the basket, once again cutting the Warriors’ lead to two.

Curry then made his greatest offensive contribution, nailing a wing 3-point dagger that put this game to bed.

The play ultimately set up what was the most controversial part of this game — fouling (or not fouling) jump shooters.

Foul or no foul?

The theme of this game revolved around the number of dangerously contested 3-point attempts. The Rockets made 14 threes in Game 1, but attempted 47 of their 74 field goals beyond the arc (63.5% of their total shots).

This controversy became even more pertinent in the last seconds of the game, when James Harden took a potential game-tying three, which was closely contested by Draymond Green. Harden fell to the ground, hoping to get a foul call from the officials, but to no avail.

This was one of many plays in which Harden intended to draw fouls by kicking his legs.

As retired referee Steve Javie explained during the game, there is an imaginary circle under a player who rises up for a jump shot. However, Harden often extends that circle by leaning his lower body forward when he feels a player will closely challenge his shot, as illustrated below.

Javie also explained that when a player often tries to sell the contact in every possible instance, an official will be wary of this throughout the game, often not awarding him the benefit of the doubt.

Harden did get fouled on a few of these plays, but he also wasn’t on plenty of others. This game was one that didn’t favor him much besides a first-quarter call on a 3-point attempt; he often tried to exploit that potential call.

The Warriors are known for playing a gambit defense, one that relies on fast closeouts, an angle not only Harden, but others such as Chris Paul, have tried to exploit.

Game 1 favored the Warriors in this realm of competition, but Golden State would be wise to watch out on these wild shot contests if it wants to keep the Rockets off the foul line.

Draymond Green, an opportunist

Green had another stellar game after a rousing effort to close out the first-round series against the L.A. Clippers. The undersized 6-foot-7 forward started at center on Sunday and notched a cool 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting, with nine rebounds and nine assists — a near-triple-double effort that sparked the Warriors’ offense throughout his 40 minutes of action.

The former Defensive Player of the Year was a stalwart on defense while picking his spots on offense, which led to an efficient night. His first bucket came off a back-cut and a delivery from Andre Iguodala, a sign that his heady play was on full display.

His offensive contributions are more vital than ever, given that most teams have already written him off as a potential scorer and often leave him open in several situations.

Green even took and made a couple of mid-range jump shots, which will boost the confidence of the Warriors’ primary playmaker.

If he hits these types of shots with regularity, it will unlock other parts of his game, including his alley-oop plays with Kevin Durant, Kevon Looney, Andrew Bogut and Iguodala.

Also worth mentioning: Green looks much more limber than he did two months ago. The 20-plus pounds he lost under his new eating regimen have given him a stark contrast in mobility and magnified his knack for pushing the ball in transition.

This version of Draymond Green was often the catalyst for previous championship teams, and if he can keep up this torrid pace throughout the series, the Rockets will be in trouble.

Stephen Curry: In trouble again

Foul trouble, that is. Yes. Again.

The Warriors’ point guard picked up his third foul in the first 19 seconds of the third quarter, only to pick up his fourth with 4:34 left in the period, once again playing the good ol’ trust game with coach Steve Kerr.

Kerr yanked him immediately, trusting Kevin Durant to carry on as the featured scorer for the rest of the quarter.

Curry went back in to start the fourth quarter, but picked up his fifth on a reach at the 8:12 mark, only to come back a minute and a half later.

Kerr later chided his two-time MVP in his postgame presser, noting he called for his mother, Sonya, to tell him to stop fouling, something that has been a theme throughout his career.

“I asked him, I said ‘Steph where is your mom?,’” said Kerr. “He pointed about 10 rows behind the bench and I looked up and I made eye contact with Sonya and said ‘tell him not to foul anymore.’

“If his mom can’t get through him, I definitely can’t get through him. Maybe try (his father) Dell next time.”

Curry vowed to get his fouling situation figured out, but this is the fifth occurrence in seven playoff games, and at one point I question whether it’s just a trend, or who he has become after developing these lazy habits.

Chess match: Check

Much as he did in Game 6 of the first-round series against the L.A. Clippers, Steve Kerr made another lineup change, this time trotting out his Hamptons 5 lineup by putting in Andre Iguodala at small forward to start the game.

In any other year, this would have been considered Kerr’s checkmate move and one he would save for the NBA Finals, yet the Golden State coach’s often-hailed “death lineup” isn’t really his best five this season.

Kerr revealed his best formation minutes into the first quarter, taking Iguodala out and putting in Kevon Looney, who has had a tremendous impact for the Warriors despite playing fewer than 20 minutes in each of his playoff games this year.

The fourth-year big man made his impact felt almost instantly, getting back-to-back-to-back buckets in the first quarter, a 6-0 personal scoring run to give the Warriors a 22-19 lead.

Most importantly, his defense on James Harden was nothing short of stellar, making smart, fundamental contests of his shots, despite being as heavily targeted as he was during the Western Conference Finals last year.

Looney might be a big man, but he is spry of foot and immensely long, giving the Warriors another lengthy defender to throw at Harden as he hunts for mismatches.

Besides this silly foul call on a Harden wrist-wrap, Looney made the most of his minutes and provided the secret spark Kerr was hoping for.

Don’t be fooled, there will be more of where that came from in due time.

Looney will be as big an impact player as any for the Warriors this series, especially if this lineup takes yet another vital member from the bench to fortify the starting five.

Sometimes the best moves are the ones made with a slight bit of deception.

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