Here’s something you might have learned about the Golden State Warriors last night, if, up until now, you’ve watched them only in a fog of late-night, Eastern Standard-haziness: They are not merely illusory, and they are never far away from blasting their way back into a basketball game, never far away from going on some noisy and creative and inexplicably batshit run that utterly demoralizes the opponent with its sudden fervor.
There’s a reason the Warriors might be the most exciting NBA team to watch in quite some time, and that reason became apparent once more on Tuesday night, during their 110-106 defeat of Houston in Game 1 of the NBA’s Western Conference Finals. The Warriors trailed by 16 points almost halfway through the second quarter; around that time, coach Steve Kerr – who is beginning to resemble the Zen Master for this newer, swifter, 3-pointier age of professional basketball – subbed out his big men (including center Andrew Bogut, facing foul trouble) and brought in a small lineup, which meant that an undersized moppet-like forward named Draymond Green would have to guard the toothy iceberg that is Rockets center Dwight Howard.
This choice went better than anyone could have imagined; this was the moment when Howard began to get sloppy, and this was the moment when the Warriors’ backup point guard, Shaun Livingston, a guy who survived one of the more gruesome knee injuries in the recent history of sports, helped spur a 25-6 run that gave the Warriors the lead before halftime.
But you want to know the most remarkable thing about it? In that entire quarter, the Warriors best player – the MVP of the entire league – didn’t score a single point, not until the final seconds, when Steph Curry stared down the buzzer, stepped back, and hit a 20-foot jump shot to make it 58-55 at half. Other than that, the biggest run of the game was not really spurred by either of the Warriors’ two first-rate guards, Curry and Klay Thompson; the run was spurred by Livingston, who gave Golden State the kind of Herculean effort off the bench that the Warriors have been getting all season.
Give the Rockets credit for not folding in the wake of that run. Give them credit for hanging around until the end, when, with the game tied 97-97, forward Harrison Barnes – generously viewed as the Warriors’ fourth option on offense – hit two key baskets, and then Livingston found Curry wide open underneath the hoop to spur a 9-0 run that was enough to counter a desperation Houston rally in the final seconds. And give Houston’s James Harden credit for enduring the brain-dead Overrated chants from the crowd at Oakland’s Oracle Arena and dominating the floor in the fourth quarter; and mostly, give the Rockets credit for countering Golden State’s small-ball with some small-ball of their own after Howard left the game with a bruised knee.
“Houston does the same thing – they like to play small,” Kerr said after the game. “So it was an interesting chess match because they like to go small, we like to go small.”
Don’t get me wrong: I’d prefer to see the Rockets at full strength, and I hope Howard is able to make it back for Game 2. But if this series has any potential to be great – and it still does, despite the Warriors, who hold the home-court advantage, once again proving themselves nearly invincible at Oracle last night – it is because of the potential for all that small ball, for two teams that want to push the tempo to go right after each other. That’s what the Warriors did last night in the midst of that second-quarter run, and that’s what the Rockets did in the fourth quarter when Harden was able to dominate without Howard clogging the lane.
The best thing about this series is that it feels like the future; it feels like two teams who don’t give a shit about Phil Jackson’s fusty proclamations and are going to push hard at each other and shoot from the perimeter and try to wear each other out without ever bogging the game down in foul-line hacking strategies or overzealous physicality. And hell, for the first time in a while, that feels like a style of professional basketball that actually might be worth staying awake for.
Michael Weinreb is the author of Season of Saturdays: A History of College Football in 14 Games. You can find him on Twitter @michaelweinreb