OAKLAND, Calif. – Stephen Curry pumped his fist hard in the air as the crowd released a scream of relief with him. As the Golden State Warriors celebrated their victory over the Houston Rockets, James Harden could only kneel and slowly lay his head on the Oracle Arena court in disappointment.
Harden was mostly magnificent for the Rockets, pouring in another near triple-double with 38 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals on Thursday night. But he was left regretting the one shot he did not take after fumbling away the ball on the game's final possession to allow the Warriors to escape with a 99-98 victory and a 2-0 series lead.
After Harden finally rose to his feet, the frustration of two blown games against Golden State boiled over as he yanked down a curtain on his way to the locker room.
"It's frustrating," Harden said. "Frustrating to give the game away like that for myself."
The game appeared over after Golden State led 98-90 on a step-back jumper by Curry with 1:39 left. The Rockets, as has been the case in these playoffs, didn't back off.
Harden led an 8-1 run with six points and an alley-oop assist to Dwight Howard to trim Golden State's lead to 99-98 with 33 seconds left. With 7.9 seconds remaining, the Warriors' Harrison Barnes missed a reverse lay-in, which was rebounded by Harden.
Whether with his scoring or passing, Harden toyed with the Warriors for most of this night. But on the final play, the Warriors were ready for him after he sprinted down the floor with time running out. A double team of Curry and Klay Thompson eagerly awaited him near the 3-point line. With Howard struggling to get up the floor, there was no other wide-open Rocket for Harden to give the ball to for an easy shot.
Rockets coach Kevin McHale appeared to try to call a timeout, but said he changed his mind. The referees missed it anyway amongst the noise of the sellout crowd and the chaos of the game's final play.
"We'll take our best player going downhill," McHale said. "He's a great downhill player."
After Howard got past half-court, Harden passed the ball to him in the final seconds. Howard had zero intention of shooting a desperation 3-pointer and fired the ball back to Harden. Harden was smothered by the two Warriors, and Curry quickly tipped the ball away. The buzzer sounded without the Rockets taking a shot.
"Got the ball off the glass, and I'm thinking, just to try to get an easy one," Harden said. "They did a good job of having two guys on me, so I couldn't attack, and when I looked up I saw a red jersey and it was Dwight so I tried to throw it back to him. At that time I'm thinking five seconds on the clock, so I tried to get the ball back, and it was still two guys right there. … I watched the film. It's just a tough, tough play."
As the Warriors celebrated and exhaled, Rockets forward Trevor Ariza ran to Harden to lift him up.
"I told him to get up. That's it. 'We about to go home. Don't worry about it. It happens,' " Ariza said.
Harden's emotions spilled over as he ripped down a curtain on the way to the locker room. He later muttered about a kicked chair. As soon as the All-Star got into the locker room, Ariza, Josh Smith and other teammates tried their best to calm him down and let him know there is still an opportunity to come back.
"He wants to be great and great players always seem to [put too much pressure on themselves]," Ariza said. "Just as long as they know that we are with him and behind him no matter what. Anything else shouldn't matter."
Said Smith: "We told him in the locker room that it's going to be all right. There is a lot of weight on his shoulders to put this team on his back in moments like this. He probably felt like he failed the team. That definitely wasn't the case and we had to let him know that."
The Rockets lost Game 1 to the Warriors 110-106 despite 28 points from Harden. Houston lost Game 2 by a mere point. While the Rockets know they can compete against Golden State, there are no moral victories in the postseason. First team to four wins takes the series, and the Warriors are two wins away from their first NBA Finals appearance since 1975.
Next up are two games in Houston. For Rockets guard Jason Terry, who won an NBA title with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011, Game 3 on Friday night is a "must win" to truly keep the series alive.
"Obviously, it hurts whether you lose by one or lose by 20," Terry said. "It really doesn't matter. What is encouraging is that you're going home. This is a must-win game for us. It's must-win time.
"You got to love it. It's the Western Conference finals and what better place to be than going home. The sense of urgency is going to be there for the tip."
The Rockets had a lot of time to think about how the Warriors had their number as they spent the night in San Francisco. Harden was expected to cool down and get his mind off things by eating with his agent, Robert Pelinka. The Warriors are 6-0 against the Rockets this season. Curry won the NBA's Most Valuable Player award over Harden, and the Warriors, who had the NBA's top regular-season record, are 10-2 overall in the postseason.
But don't count out Harden and these Rockets just yet. Houston overcame a 3-1 series deficit in the second round to stun the Los Angeles Clippers and advance. Harden, for one, is ready for the fight.
"We let two slip away," Harden said, "so now we go back to Houston and take care of business at home."