The Golden State Warriors did it all season long, outscoring their opponents by a staggering 371 points in the third quarter. They did it in Game 6 of these Western Conference finals, with their season on the line, outscoring the Houston Rockets by 17 points in the 12 minutes after halftime to force a winner-take-all Game 7.
And on Monday night in Houston, they did it again.
After a lackluster first half in which they were flat-out overwhelmed by the Rockets’ physicality, energy and defensive aggression, the Warriors flipped that third-quarter switch in Game 7. Riding the shot-making of Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, Golden State once again found its rhythm, erasing an 11-point first-half deficit in 7 1/2 minutes to knock the misfiring Rockets on their heels and, after a record-setting hail of missed 3-pointers, out of the playoffs.
After trailing by as many as 15 in the first half, the Warriors came all the way back behind a 33-15 third quarter to score a 101-92 win on the road in Game 7, climbing out of the 3-2 series hole they dug to eliminate the Rockets four games to three and advance to their fourth straight NBA Finals.
The Warriors are the first team in NBA history to win multiple elimination games in the same series despite trailing by 10-or-more at halftime.
— Warriors PR (@WarriorsPR) May 29, 2018
For the fourth straight year, they will take on LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who knocked off the Boston Celtics on Sunday night in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Game 1 of the 2018 NBA tips off at Oracle Arena on Thursday. The Warriors will be favored. Heavily.
Durant scored 21 of his 34 points after halftime, to go with five rebounds, five assists, three blocks and a steal in 44 minutes. He bounced back from a first half in which he missed box-outs, blew assignments and generally got pushed around by the more physical Rockets to shut the door on Houston with 11 in the fourth quarter.
He drilled a big pull-up 3-pointer from 30 feet out to push the lead back to 11 after Houston had drawn within eight with just under eight minutes to go. Then, with the Rockets mustering a last-gasp run, he knocked in a pair of tough midrange jumpers to keep them from getting closer than two possessions in the final few minutes:
Kevin Durant buries it from downtown!
— NBA (@NBA) May 29, 2018
— NBA (@NBA) May 29, 2018
Durant’s 11-for-21 shooting (5-for-11 from 3-point range) ended matters, but it was Curry who started the avalanche.
The two-time MVP got hot in a hurry after halftime, scoring 14 points in a three-minute, 10-second stretch midway through the third quarter to put the Rockets on the mat and staring up at a nine-point deficit. Curry would score 19 of his 27 points (10-for-22 from the field, 7-for-15 from 3) after intermission, adding 10 assists, nine rebounds, four steals and a block in 44 minutes to pace the Warriors, who overcame early sloppiness, turnovers and foul woes to outlast their hosts and advance.
Golden State again had to weather the absence of forward Andre Iguodala, who hasn’t suited up since suffering a left leg contusion in Game 3. But Warriors coach Steve Kerr was able to turn to his reserves for just enough floor time and contributions — 16 uneven but active minutes for rookie big man Jordan Bell (who didn’t score and missed three opportunities at the rim that led to Warrior turnovers, but added five rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal), 17 minutes and one big 3-pointer by Nick Young — to help weather early foul trouble for Klay Thompson and keep Golden State’s top guns from emptying their tanks too early.
In a broader sense, the Rockets missed the shot creation and shot-making of Paul, who took over after halftime in Games 4 and 5 to will Houston to within one game of the NBA Finals, helping settle Houston down and keep the Warriors on edge with his ability to penetrate and dictate. (Part of the idea behind trading for Paul last summer was importing one of the sport’s elite midrange shooters to provide an in-case-of-emergency interior option on a night when the 3-point shots aren’t falling. Would’ve been a nice option to have in Game 7.) On a basic level, though, Houston missed just having another really good player who could play a lot of minutes.
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni, long a proponent of limiting his postseason rotation in an attempt to reduce the number of minutes where his team will field glaring minuses on one end or the other, had already cut his rotation down to seven players before Paul went down. (Well, 6 1/2, really, with Gerald Green averaging about 16 minutes per game as the seventh man.) In Game 6, D’Antoni slotted Eric Gordon into Paul’s spot in the starting lineup, rode Green harder and tried rejuvenating the hasn’t-been-himself-since-the-last-night-of-the-regular-season Luc Mbah a Moute … but to no avail. In Game 7, he dusted off floor-spacer Ryan Anderson — whom Curry targeted relentlessly in the pick-and-roll every chance he got; Anderson was a -13 in eight minutes — and veteran swingman Joe Johnson to give James Harden a rest for a couple of minutes here and there in the first three quarters.
Those brief breathers weren’t enough.
With the exception of center Clint Capela, who played his longest minutes of the series and looked fantastic for most of them — 20 points on 9-for-10 shooting, nine rebounds, two steals, great interior activity — the Rockets’ legs looked cooked by the closing stages. That lack of burst and lift contributed to Houston going unbelievably, historically, season-endingly frigid from deep at the most inopportune time possible.
The Rockets at one point had missed 27 straight 3-pt FG tonight.@EliasSports tells us that's the most consecutive missed 3s in a playoff game in NBA history.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 29, 2018
The Rockets — the league’s No. 1 offense and premier long-range attack this season, who took and made more 3-pointers than any team in NBA history — clanged 3 after clean, open 3, going just 7-from-44 from 3-point land in Game 7. Harden, this season’s likely MVP, finished with a team-high 32 points, six rebounds, six assists, four steals and a block. But with the season slipping away in the second half, he couldn’t hit the shot that stemmed the tide; he missed 11 of his 13 long-ball tries in Game 7, and didn’t make one after the first quarter.
Gordon scored 23 points on 9-for-22 shooting with six assists against just one turnover in Paul’s stead in the starting lineup. He, too, missed a ton of long looks, going just 2-for-12 from deep. Forward Trevor Ariza, such a vital defender and contributor all series long, went 0-for-9 from 3-point range, and 0-for-12 from the field total, to post a goose egg in the biggest game of Houston’s season.
All those misses — Houston went just 1-for-21 from 3 after halftime — helped kickstart Golden State’s transition game, getting the Warriors off to the races and allowing them to wear the weary Rockets down, and eventually out.
“Just in that second half, our pace wasn’t there,” Harden told reporters after the game. “In the third quarter, I was trying to get the guys: ‘Come on, let’s go. Let’s go, it’s time.’ But we didn’t have that extra juice that we needed. I don’t know if it was the big minutes. I don’t know what it was. Whatever it was.”
Vying for their first Finals appearance since 1995 and looking to wash out the sour taste of the second half of Game 6, the Rockets came out intent on imposing their will on the visitors from the opening tip. Harden and Gordon pressed the action early, bulldozing their way to the rim and forcing Thompson into two fouls in the first 54 seconds of the game. Kerr elected to leave him in; the choice backfired when Thompson picked up his third personal when he made contact with Harden while he was shooting a 3 with 8:21 to go in the opening quarter, forcing the hero of Game 6 to the bench and jumbling the rotation of a Warriors team already operating without Iguodala.
Houston’s attacking offense and smothering defense left Golden State in disarray early, as the hosts jumped out to an early 15-9 lead on a Capela dunk. But with the Warriors reeling, the Rockets couldn’t press the advantage, going scoreless for nearly four minutes and allowing Golden State to find its footing. Despite a strong start by Harden, who scored 14 points on 4-for-6 shooting in the opening frame, Houston’s lead was just five, 24-19, after 12 minutes.
But after a stifled start from Harden’s supporting cast — just 3-for-16 from the field and 2-for-9 from 3-point range with four turnovers in the first — the rest of the Rockets got rolling in the second, thanks in large part to steady, relentless effort.
Capela owned the front of the glass and the paint on both ends. P.J. Tucker (14 points on 5-for-9 shooting, 12 rebounds, four steals, two assists in 44 1/2 bruising minutes) bullied his way to every loose ball. The Rockets pushed at every opportunity afforded to them by Golden State’s clanging, ripping off a 12-2 run capped by a thunderous Harden-to-Capela alley-oop to put Houston up 36-23 with just under eight minutes to go in the half.
The persistent application of that effort — to secure damn near every loose ball, to plug up every passing lane and short-circuit every Warrior hope of ball movement, to make players like Durant and Draymond Green look overmatched and out-of-sorts — continued. Houston outrebounded the Warriors 26-17 in the first half, including 11 offensive rebounds (leading to nine second-chance points), and earned a 30-14 edge in points in the paint.
The effect was just as obvious on the other end. The Rockets’ switching defense — emboldened by the belief that Draymond just flat-out wouldn’t shoot, and that players like Kevon Looney, Jordan Bell and Shaun Livingston weren’t going to hurt them if they did — completely smothered the Warriors’ defense, harassing Golden State to the tune of 10 steals in the first 24 minutes.
Even as Golden State hung around, getting the deficit back to nine on three separate occasions in the closing minutes of the half, the Rockets just kept pushing. Harden and Gordon probed in the pick-and-roll, Capela got himself into great positions to capitalize and then finished everything he touched (12 points in the quarter on perfect 6-for-6 shooting), and Houston kept the Warriors at arm’s length.
Golden State even blinked at the end of the half, completely falling asleep and letting Gordon race the length of the court in 4.5 seconds for a layup at the horn that sent Toyota Center into hysterics and put the Rockets up 54-43 at the break:
— NBA (@NBA) May 29, 2018
As they have so often this season, though, the Warriors saved their best for the third quarter.
With the Rockets struggling to cash in on the looks they were getting, Golden State hung around and chipped away at the lead. After Capela saved the ball under his own basket to right to the Warriors, giving Golden State a 5-on-4 chance to attack, Draymond got a layup to get within nine. After a couple more Houston offensive rebounds resulted in Gordon drawing nothing but glass on a 3, the Warriors pushed in transition and found Young in the left corner for a clean look that splashed home, making it 58-53 Rockets with 7:45 to go in the third.
And then, Steph got going …
… and — as is so often the case for these Warriors, and the league they’ve put on tilt — everything changed.
Klay Thompson on staying mentally tough after poor first half: "We know we can make an 11-point lead evaporate in about two minutes of good basketball."
— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) May 29, 2018
The Rockets, down to one star and running on empty, took their shot, and they missed. The Warriors, with four All-Stars feeding off one another and two MVPs brandishing daggers, didn’t. And now, while the path we took here differed greatly from what we might have expected, we’re back where we started: Warriors vs. Cavs, for the right to hoist the O’Brien, for the fourth straight year.
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