CHICAGO - In the first one minute and 49 seconds after tip-off, James Harden scored nine quick points courtesy of two deep 3s, a nifty layup and a technical foul free throw that was caused by a mischievous Draymond Green elbow to Harden's beard-infested neck.
The early outburst from this season's presumptive MVP was the trampoline that allowed the Houston Rockets to jump to a 24-13 first-quarter lead in Game One of the Western Conference Finals. The capacity crowd of 18,055 went nuts, filling the Toyota Center with the sounds of fury and excitement.
It was the Rockets' best punch.
But the Golden State Warriors took it like a champ.
"Our guys have been here before. Our guys have a lot of experience, they felt this, they relish this," head coach Steve Kerr described to The San Francisco Chronicle how his team responded to the early adversity.
Instead of panicking, the Warriors buckled down to work and tied things up at 56-56 by halftime. And when Andre Iguodala put the Warriors ahead, 58-56, to start the third quarter, the Warriors never trailed again and went on to cruise to a comfortable 119-106 victory.
And just like that, the Rockets lost the home court advantage they toiled for months to acquire. Just like that, their 65 regular season wins are as useful as a strip of discarded toilet paper. And just like that, the dream of winning an NBA title is unraveling into a nightmare.
Back in December, Rockets GM Daryl Morey told ESPN that his team is "obsessed" with beating the Warriors. "We spend most of our time just figuring out how we might just knock the Warriors out in seven games."
Unlike Morey, who is universally acknowledged as the leading proponent of basketball analytics, I'm not that smart. I'm just a washed-up writer whose IQ barely made it to the sane threshold.
But this much I've figured out: These Warriors are unbeatable against the defensively-challenged Rockets. And that's saying a lot because at age 49, I no longer have those impulsive, knee-jerk reactions. Charles Barkley was right, "this series is over."
Yeah, Harden finished with 41 points but he was over-dribbling so much he gave the ball a headache. As a result of his ball-hogging dominance, the Rockets had three 24-second shot-clock violations in the first half and they finished with only 18 assists as the rest of the team watched him go on isolation plays ad nauseam.
Kevin Durant did have iso plays as well, 13 as a matter of fact. But the Warriors did it as a purposed strategy because nobody in a Houston uniform can guard the former NBA MVP. The 6-foot-11 Durant pulled up jumpers over shorter defenders such as six-foot Chris Paul, 6-foot-5 Harden and 6-foot-6 P.J. Tucker. And he used his footwork to dance around bigs such as Clint Capela and Nene, who at age 35 now moves like a tank.
Last June's Finals MVP Durant sizzled with 37 points. And Houston simply has no answer.
The Rockets made 39 of 85 field goals (45.9 percent) and 13 of 37 triples (35.1 percent). They got 23 points and 11 rebounds from CP3, 21 from the bench, and they had a 42-37 rebounding edge.
Normally, those numbers are enough to salvage a victory. But the Warriors are anything but normal.
Golden State converted 42 of 80 field goals (52.5 percent) and 13 of 33 treys (39.4 percent). They had more assists, 24-18, and less turnovers 9-13.
Steph Curry had a quiet 18 points but his mere presence and the threat of an implosion stressed the Rockets defense so much it allowed Klay Thompson to blow up for 28. Some of Thompson's 3s were so wide open he had time to make coffee and wait for an Uber.
"We left so many wide open 3s....If we want to beat them we have to be mentally sharper," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni lamented after the defeat.
Undaunted, D'Antoni already has a plan for Game Two. "I'll go talk to him (Harden). He's got to get 55 next time," coach Mike told The Houston Chronicle. The quip was said in jest but it sounded more like a prayer.
All season long, the Rockets had made it clear they want the Warriors. After beating Golden State twice in three meetings, Clint Capela was so confident in January he told NBA.com they were "better."
And here came the Warriors on Monday night. In their building, beaten early and appeared ripe for KO. But the Rockets melted like ice cream on a perspiring summer afternoon.
Be careful what you wish for, Houston. Obsessions are unhealthy. And dangerous.