OAKLAND, Calif. — When the Golden State Warriors secured their matchup with the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference finals, they immediately found themselves in unfamiliar territory: without home-court advantage. In fact, some members of the team accidentally booked plane tickets for family and friends to arrive in the Bay Area for Games 1 and 2, forgetting they were starting the series in Houston.
That’s how long it has been since the defending champs started a series on the road. Four years, to be exact. The Warriors had previously opened 14 straight playoff series at Oracle Arena.
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“It’s been a while since we’ve started out a series on the road,” Draymond Green said. “You kind of forget that feeling. … When you’re going on the road, the mindset is to go get one game. Hopefully, you can do that in Game 1, but nonetheless, that is going to be our mindset, and, you know, I’m looking forward to the opportunity for us to go start a series somewhere else and not so much where we’re at home protecting, just trying not to give up a game.”
Claiming the No. 1 seed was a major priority this season for the Rockets, who finished seven games ahead of the No. 2-seeded Warriors. It was Houston’s first step in trying to dethrone the Warriors.
The last time the Warriors were the lower-seeded team in a playoff series was in 2014 when they lost Game 7 on the road to the LA Clippers in the first round. Mark Jackson was fired as the head coach of the team soon after and replaced by Steve Kerr.
“It was just a learning experience for us on how to be successful on the road in a hostile environment during the playoffs,” Stephen Curry said of the 2014 series. “It left a sour taste in our mouths, the way we lost. We then understood how truly important it was to have home-court advantage, and that was one of the reasons why I think we were able to turn the corner.”
Since then, the Warriors boast an NBA-best 55-17 postseason record, including a 20-12 mark on the road, and have won two championships under Kerr.
“It’s different,” Kerr said of starting on the road. “I think our guys, they are taking the challenge, and they’re embracing it. They feel like, ‘OK, we don’t have home court for the first time,’ but we seem to be at our best when we are threatened. That’s been kind of the M.O. of this team. We’re definitely threatened. We’re on the road for Game 1, we’ve never felt that.”
The Warriors struggled with sustaining motivation throughout the season. Their regular-season series with Houston had concluded in January, which is a big reason why the second half of Golden State’s season was so uninspiring. Kerr’s voice began to ring hollow at times, leading him to try different tactics to engage his team; he even allowed players to run the timeout huddles in a game against the Phoenix Suns in February.
But for a team that has been to three consecutive Finals, it would take a new challenge to resurrect their enthusiasm to perform at a high level. This matchup is one of a few challenges the Warriors had interest in, especially with the added degree of difficulty of starting on the road.
Shaun Livingston emphasized that’s why a change of scenery for Game 1 is good for them.
“It’s not the norm, but I like it,” Livingston said. “I’ve done it before at other places, and I like it because it sets that tone. You’ve got to be ready. Appropriate fear. Coming in, being on the road. You got the opposing fans coming at you. It’s fun.”
Andre Iguodala, who made a comment to ESPN about Utah’s lack of nightlife that the locals didn’t appreciate last playoffs, joked that he is “looking forward to embracing the hospitality that the great Houstonians have to offer.”
For the 14-year veteran, he said it’s business as usual, and the mission is for the Warriors to head home up 2-0.
“You go in there and just play,” Iguodala said. “That’s it, man. There’s nothing else to it but to go down there and handle business, right? You try to win every game you play. A lot of people say, ‘Ah, we’re going down there and we’re trying to split.’ Nah, we’re trying to win both games. At the end of the day, you’re playing basketball, and you control what you can control.”
Iguodala added that even when the series shifts to Oakland the Warriors can’t afford to get comfortable against this Rockets team.
“I don’t have comfort being at home,” he said. “You’ve got to be careful with that. There’s always like a show wherever we go. It follows us on the road. Sometimes that gets the best of us. But it’s the playoffs. We’ll be ready. We have to be.”