OAKLAND, Calif. — Down big at home, the Golden State Warriors went small.
It turned out to make a huge difference.
Stephen Curry hit two free throws in the final seconds to finish with 34 points, and the Warriors rallied from a 16-point deficit in the second quarter to beat the Houston Rockets 110-106 on Tuesday night in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.
With the Rockets seemingly ready to rout the home team, the Warriors used a smaller lineup featuring Draymond Green at centre and closed the first half on a 21-4 run. Shaun Livingston scored 14 of his 18 points in the quarter, helping Golden State go ahead 58-55 at halftime. The Warriors had to hold off Houston in the fourth quarter.
“It really stretches people out,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of his lineup full of shooters. “Houston does the same thing. It was an interesting chess match, because they like to go small and we like to go small.”
James Harden, the runner-up to Curry in the MVP voting, nearly brought the Rockets back after Dwight Howard departed with a left knee injury — which also allowed Golden State to go small again in the closing minutes. Harden finished with 28 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists and four steals.
Game 2 is Thursday night in Oakland, and Rockets coach Kevin McHale said he had no update on the centre’s status moving forward.
“Hopefully Dwight is healthy and we can play big,” McHale said. “We didn’t have that option with Dwight out.”
Harden, serenaded with chants of “Over-rated!” from Warriors fans, mixed in a series of step-back jumpers and driving layups to help Houston even the score at 95-all midway through the fourth.
But the Warriors shut down Houston for long stretches, and Curry kept hitting shots. He connected on a 3-pointer and converted a layup to put Golden State up 108-97 with 2:01 remaining.
The Rockets never relented, though, with Trevor Ariza making a 3-pointer that trimmed the Warriors’ lead to 108-106 with 14.6 seconds to play.
Curry twice caught the inbounds pass, and the Rockets were forced to foul him both times. He hit both free throws to seal Golden State’s win.
Curry added six rebounds and five assists, and Green had 13 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists to boost the Warriors when they needed it most.
Ariza scored 20 points and Josh Smith had 17 points and seven rebounds for Houston, which played without Howard for most of the fourth.
In the conference finals for the first time since 1976, the Warriors hardly looked like the league’s top-seeded team at the outset. Instead, the Rockets rode the momentum from a stunning 3-1 series comeback against the Los Angeles Clippers that ended with a Game 7 win in Houston on Sunday.
The only setback to Houston’s hot start came when Howard briefly left in the first quarter after colliding with Smith. Howard returned after a few minutes, and the Rockets raced out to a 49-33 lead midway through the second quarter that left the home crowd stunned and silent.
That didn’t last long.
With Andrew Bogut in foul trouble and the Rockets rolling on both ends, the Warriors put Green — the runner-up for NBA Defensive Player of the Year — at centre and spread the court with shooters.
Livingston scored 14 points in the quarter, and Curry capped the spurt with a step-back 20-footer that sent the crowd roaring even louder. Fans later broke out in chants of “M-V-P!” as the Warriors sprinted to the locker room with a 58-55 lead.
They never trailed again.
Rockets: Houston is 0-5 against the Warriors this season. … The Rockets haven’t won at Golden State since Dec. 13, 2013.
Warriors: Golden State is 44-3 at home this season, including 5-1 in the playoffs. … The Warriors are 17-14 this season when trailing by at least 10 points.
The Rockets sent out seldom-used reserve Nick Johnson for the captain’s handshake with Curry, who was caught by cameras walking away and shaking his head, which created a stir on social media. Rockets captain Patrick Beverley is out with a left wrist injury and hasn’t been handling the ritual handshake in the playoffs.
Undefeated boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., who was booed by fans during Game 5 of the Grizzlies-Warriors series in Oakland, watched from a courtside seat. Also sitting among the crowd was boxer and Bay Area native Andre Ward, who was cheered loudly when shown on the videoboards.
Antonio Gonzalez, The Associated Press