There are plenty of reasons why the Golden State Warriors authored another second-half comeback on Monday night to knock off the Houston Rockets in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, sending Golden State on to its fourth straight NBA Finals matchup with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. There was Stephen Curry’s 14-points-in-three-minutes jolt to reboot the lagging Warriors and put Houston its heels.
There was Kevin Durant shaking off a sluggish start and clearing the cobwebs after all that criticism of all those isolations, dropping 21 of his 34 points after halftime and drilling daggers down the stretch. There were all those 3-pointers Houston missed, a record-setting 27 in a row at one point, as the shots the Rockets made all season long conspired to bury them.
And as 3 after 3 clanged clear of the rim, there was the cruelty of Chris Paul, the man Daryl Morey had brought to Houston for just such an occasion, sitting on the sidelines and watching it all happen.
The first conference finals appearance of Paul’s 13-year, Hall of Fame-bound career ended when he pulled up in pain in the final minute of Game 5. He suffered a hamstring injury that sapped all the joy out of the Rockets taking a 3-2 lead and left the Warriors feeling like, even down to their last strike, the series was theirs. They wound up being right.
The Rockets suffered the one injury they couldn’t afford
During his post-game press conference, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni spoke glowingly of what Paul brought during his first season in Houston (“He’s what’s right about basketball, why we get into it […] there are just so many layers to him as a person that I like being around him, it makes me a better person”). But D’Antoni stopped short of chalking his team’s inability to hold onto double-digits halftime leads in Games 6 and 7 to the absence of Paul: “Well, it is tough. But, again, it’s part of the game. I thought we had enough, and I still do.”
Well, publicly, at least. Away from the podium, apparently, he shared a different opinion, according to Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated …
The Rockets were understandably emotional after losing just one game shy of the NBA Finals with Trevor Ariza, Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker in tears. Apparently, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni told Warriors All-Star forward Kevin Durant during Game 7 that his team would have won the series if Paul played.
But you’ve gotta hear both sides
… which reportedly led Warriors coach Steve Kerr to offer a rejoinder:
While unwinding long after the win with Morton’s The Steakhouse cuisine and a cold one, Kerr responded to those words by saying, “We would have won the series in five if Iggy played.”
Kerr is referring — though not with the preferred nomenclature — to Andre Iguodala, the Warriors’ veteran swingman, whose late-Game 3 collision with James Harden resulted in a bone bruise that sidelined him for the final four games of the conference finals. (And who, at the moment, remains on the shelf ahead of Thursday’s Game 1 against Cleveland.)
The 34-year-old veteran had started 12 of Golden State’s 13 playoff games before his injury, first as a de facto point guard while Curry was still working his way back from a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee, and then as a two-way perimeter presence who helped activate the Warriors’ powerful “Hamptons Five” small-ball lineup. The Rockets fared well against that lineup in the series, keeping it at just plus-3 over 56 minutes, and Golden State wound up having more than enough firepower to put the Rockets away thanks to Klay Thompson’s explosion in Game 6 and the Steph-and-KD avalanche in Game 7. But losing Iguodala — even now, at 34, a Swiss Army knife capable of toggling between running the show, making himself a threat against defenses tilted toward Golden State’s stars, and defending elite players like Harden, Paul and Eric Gordon — made the Warriors sweat.
Kerr had struck a similar note about the pain of Iguodala’s absence — albeit without throwing out the “this should already be over” evaluation — before Game 7.
“[Paul being sidelined for Game 7 is] a big loss,” he said. “That’s part of the playoffs, unfortunately, for a lot of teams. We’re still without Andre, which is a big blow for us. In a different way. He’s not a scorer for us as Chris is for Houston, but a huge component. So you go through the playoffs and things happen, and you’ve got to be able to bounce back no matter what and keep going.”
The Warriors got back to steady ground, and the Rockets couldn’t
The Warriors did that, bouncing back from consecutive fourth-quarter collapses in Games 4 and 5, and consecutive poor starts to Games 6 and 7, to blow the Rockets’ doors off in the second half of back-to-back games to earn their fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals. But that bounce-back came in spite of Kerr riding Curry, Durant and Draymond Green for more than 40 minutes per game, and leaning on unproven young bigs Kevon Looney and Jordan Bell and wild-card wing Nick Young. It came with the Warriors forced out of their comfort zone, and without a smart, savvy ball-handler who calms them down and curbs their worst turnover-prone tendencies.
If that sounds familiar, it might be because you’d taken a look at how things were unfolding for the guys in the other uniforms. From Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:
“We needed Chris. He would’ve settled us,” Rockets forward PJ Tucker told ESPN as he sat at his locker, drinking an electrolyte beverage after cramping badly in the final minutes of Monday’s game.
“After that Game 5 we won, we had that feeling. We could see it in each other. We can make this run. Then when he went down, I could feel our team like, ‘Oh no.’
“We were rolling,” Tucker continued. “We could see it.”
And then, that quickly, it was gone. The Warriors have a knack for that sort of erasure.
This is the stuff barstool arguments are made of
We’ll never know how it would’ve played out if both teams had been at full strength for the full series, but it feels like both sides have a legitimate case here. Coming off a dominating Game 3, the version of the Warriors with Iguodala whole, operational and engaged probably had a high-enough ceiling to finish the job in five. Coming off thrilling wins in Game 4 and Game 5, the version of the Rockets with Paul proving he was absolutely ready to shoulder the burden in the biggest minutes he’d ever played probably had enough in the tank to win one of two more games against Golden State.
But [expletive] happens in the playoffs; you play who’s in front of you, and we get what we get. In this case, we got a taut, tense, rough-and-tumble seven-game slugfest in which the Rockets proved to be every ounce the team they’d purported themselves to be all season, and the Warriors proved worthy of a fourth straight trip to the championship round.
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