Although they're best known as a high-powered offensive team, the Golden State Warriors have proven the ability to win in many ways throughout a tremendous season. It's fitting, then, that they clinched the franchise's first NBA Finals appearance in 40 years by topping the Houston Rockets in a rugged, often sloppy 104-90 Game 5 victory to close out the Western Conference Finals on Wednesday night.
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After scoring a season-low 17 first-quarter points, the Warriors grabbed a six-point halftime lead and overcame considerable third-quarter foul trouble to take control of the game in the fourth quarter. Yet the heroes were not MVP Stephen Curry and fellow All-Star Klay Thompson, but third-year wing Harrison Barnes, who scored 13 of his 24 points in the fourth, and backup center Festus Ezeli, who played 28 minutes (nine more than starter Andrew Bogut) and put up 12 points, nine rebounds, and two blocks. The Rockets had several opportunities to take advantage of Golden State struggles in the second half but could not overcome an NBA playoff record 13 turnovers for James Harden, who also shot just 2-of-11 from the field for 14 points.
The conference-clinching victory continues off a stellar season for the Warriors, who won a franchise-record 67 games and entered the postseason as title favorites. They will have homecourt advantage in the NBA Finals against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who finished off a sweep of the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday. The teams will have more than a week to prepare for Game 1, which is scheduled for next Thursday, June 4 at 6 p.m. PT at Oracle Arena in Oakland.
The first quarter proved a fitting sample of the game to come. Dwight Howard, active after avoiding suspension for a flagrant foul in Game 4, started off extremely active at both ends on his way to eight points, five boards, and two blocks over the period. Yet he was even more dominant than the stats show, altering many shots in the paint and generally making the Warriors uncomfortable at the offensive end. Golden State shot just 6-of-27 from the field and 1-of-8 from deep in the first, with Curry knocking down 2-of-7 shots and Draymond Green struggling to 1-of-7 from the field.
The good news for Golden State was that Houston didn't fare much better. While Howard finished effectively in the paint, the rest of the Rockets shot 3-of-13 from the field and 1-of-7 on threes. However, James Harden offered his usual creatitivy and ingenuity to get to the line for seven free throws without a miss. While the Warriors were fortunate to be down just 22-17 after such a rough quarter, the Rockets looked to be in control of the game early.
That changed in the second, in large part because Klay Thompson got going for the Warriors. Curry's fellow Splash Brother knocked down three three-pointers as part of a quarter-opening 13-2 run that quickly put the hosts on top 30-24. That strong start heralded a shift in momentum as Golden State shot 13-of-24 from the field and 5-of-10 from deep for a game-high 35 points in the period. Curry heated up a bit with seven points, but for seemingly the first time in the entire postseason he was not the leading figure in a Warriors run. Instead, Thompson and Barnes stepped up in another display of Golden State's depth.
The Rockets were not able to keep up as their own stars struggled. Harden in particular saw less success in the second, going just 1-of-3 from the field with no additional free throws on his way to eight first-half turnovers. As a team, Houston turned it over 11 times for 11 Golden State points. Both teams entered the break shooting worse than 40 percent from the field, but the Warriors seemed to have the edge.
They didn't exactly seize the moment to start the third quarter. After scoring the first five points of the half in a continuation of his fine form, Thompson picked up his fourth foul at the 9:41 mark and was surprisingly allowed to stay in the game by head coach Steve Kerr. That move backfired only one possession later when Thompson was whistled for a reach on Harden. With five fouls and more than 17 minutes remaining in the game, the Warriors' best offensive player up to that point had to sit. Up 57-46 after Thompson's last bucket, the Warriors gave up nine straight points and didn't score again until 6:54 remained on the clock. To make matters worse, they could not stop fouling and sent the Rockets to the line for 11 free throws in a three-minute stretch.
Those failures gave Houston an opportunity they could not take advantage of. While Jason Terry scored 10 of his 16 points in the quarter, no other Rocket converted a field goal as Harden and Howard made several turnovers and questionable decisions. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that the Rockets lost the game in this quarter even if they technically played the Warriors to a 22-22 standstill. Golden State looked tight and lacked concentration in key moments, but Houston could not rise above their level to take control.
The Warriors got another scare early in the fourth when Klay Thompson was inadvertently kneed in the head by Trevor Ariza, suffering a lacerated ear that was later updated as a case of concussion-like symptoms that will require him to pass the NBA's concussion protocol before the start of the NBA Finals, as reported by Yahoo's own Marc Spears. Yet that bad turn of events did not sink Golden State, who opened the final period on a 15-6 run featuring nine points from Barnes, four from Ezeli, and two from Andre Iguodala. Those three also helped turn the game for the Warriors on a night when Curry (26 points on 7-of-21 shooting) and Thompson (limited to 22 minutes) lacked the ability to dominate.
In an extension of the team's success this season, secondary players filled and exceeded their roles to win the most important game of the year. Barnes has been a very steady performer throughout the postseason as a scorer and versatile defender, and his 24 points were essential. Ezeli served as the primary center with Bogut merely average and scored 12 big points with Draymond Green shooting poorly (nine points on 3-of-15 FG), thereby justifying the ESPN broadcast crew's seemingly incessant claims that he could be a starter for many teams in the NBA. Iguodala had a terrific floor game (six points, six assists, four rebounds, four steals) served in his usual position as glue guy.
At the same time, the Rockets couldn't overcome Harden's horrific night. The turnovers got the most attention, but the MVP runner-up also shot 1-of-8 from the field and 3-of-6 from the line after the first quarter. Houston depended on his scoring to stay in games throughout this series, and when he did not convert they simply lacked the other performances necessary to compete. Bench players not named Corey Brewer shot 0-of-4 in 27 combined minutes, and no one came through late to pick up the slack. The Rockets played very well in this series but quite clearly lacked a second creator apart from Harden. As Golden State showed in this game, the best teams find ways to cover for a superstar's off-night.
Ninety-seven games into the season, it's not exactly news that the Warriors are a deep, versatile group capable of winning in many ways. But they have shown those qualities so many times this postseason that the obvious has only become more impressive. As we begin to cover the particulars of the NBA Finals matchup, it's notable that as many as seven or eight players stand out as potential game-winners. We will soon see if that's enough to capture their first title in four decades.
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