OAKLAND, Calif. — Kevin Durant studied the final stat sheet and listened to the questions. “I thought both teams played great,” he said, as much to himself as to the media facing him.
That they did. It was just that the Houston Rockets played a little greater.
Give Durant credit. He was out there, in the middle, so to speak, making baskets, missing shots, running, leaping, falling and, with his teammates, losing.
And yet he was moved by more than the final result, the Houston Rockets defeating the Warriors 135-134 on a 3-point basket with one second left by, whom else, James Harden.
Say what you want, that the Dubs, who were up by 20 in the first minute of the third quarter, blew the game; that Harden with yet another triple double (44 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds) is unstoppable; that Golden State will be in trouble in the playoffs.
But if you love basketball, you have to appreciate what took place in the Dubs’ first home appearance of the new year, a meeting of the two teams who battled for seven games in last year’s Western Conference final — the change in momentum, the big baskets down the stretch, the reminder that in sports nothing is certain, even a huge second-half lead by the back-to-back NBA champions.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr was less magnanimous than Durant. “I thought we had control of the game,” said Kerr. “We had a six-point lead with the ball and would have liked to have seen us get better shots.”
And have liked to have seen the Rockets, who now have won both games on the season schedule, get less successful shots.
“They came out swinging,” Kerr said of the Rockets after intermission. “They scored, I think, 18 points in the first four minutes. Our defense was really poor. Our offensive execution was really lacking.”
And Harden, the bearded wonder who had his fifth straight 40-point game and second triple double of the week, was really, well, being James Harden.
“He just did what he always does,” said Kerr. “He’s the master of isolation, the step-back three and drawing fouls. I thought we did a really good job of keeping him off the line (Harden was 8-of-9 on free throws) for the most part. He made an impossible shot at the end. Just an incredible performance. Give him all the credit he deserves.”
And give the Warriors another loss in a meaningful game at the Oracle, where in some two-plus months they’ve flopped against Oklahoma City, Toronto, Milwaukee, the Lakers and now Houston.
“Down the stretch we were missing shots,” said Durant, who scored 26 points but only two in the third quarter. Steph Curry led the Warriors with 35, while Klay Thompson had 26.
“But I don’t think down the stretch is the reason we lost,” Durant added. “I just felt we let our foot off the gas a little bit in the third quarter. They knocked down some shots. But James shot 23 threes tonight. That’s a lot of three pointers.”
Including the game winner. “James wouldn’t have had to make that shot,” said Thompson, “if we just played the way we were supposed to in the second half. The ball movement got stagnant.”
For the Rockets, the ball moves in Harden’s hands.
“He can get any shot he wants,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “His threat is getting to the rim any time he wants. I don’t think we’ve seen the likes of this offense and the explosion he has.”
Harden got pummeled in the first quarter and left the game for a few minutes. “I was a little dizzy in the beginning,” he said, “but it’s a big-time game for us.”
During the day, broadcasters at ESPN debated whether the game was more important for the Warriors or for the Rockets, a bit silly but time-filling.
Asked why he’s so difficult to guard, Harden candidly pointed out, “I think it’s the separation I create, and once I create the separation you can’t really recover. You have to let me shoot or hit my elbow. There’s not much you can do about it.”
Except, as did Kevin Durant, contend that you played in a great game.