HOUSTON -- They plodded out of this sauna-like region with their backsides dragging and their bodies aching, but heads held high.
These Western Conference Finals were not so much triumph as survival. The Warriors endured everything thrown at them by the Houston Rockets. And plenty was thrown, from elbows and forearms to malicious hips and shoulders. Clutching and leaning hard, the Rockets came within a half of upsetting the defending champs.
“Much respect to the Houston Rockets for bringing out the best in us and making this an incredible series,” Kevin Durant said late Monday night, after a fabulous second half allowed the Warriors to overcome a repulsive first in a 101-92 victory in Game 7.
“Pushing us to the brink. You’ve got to give respect to them and this great season that they had.”
The Warriors needed all seven games to overcome not just the rugged Rockets, but also themselves. They wobbled in Game 4, giving back a 12-point fourth quarter lead to lose by three at home. They stumbled hard in Game 5, losing by four because Houston point guard Chris Paul would take nothing less than a victory that gave his team a 3-2 lead in the series
But Paul was done after Game 5, a hamstring strain forcing him to the sideline and giving the Warriors an opening they toyed with before eventually barging through in Games 6 and 7.
“They compete,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of the Rockets. “They played both ends. They got a lot of toughness, a lot of grit. We were lucky to escape out of here.”
Facing elimination before a hostile crowd at Toyota Center the Warriors did precisely the wrong thing. They fell behind, by seven in the first quarter, by 15 seven minutes into the second. The Rockets were rolling; they were the tougher team. The Warriors, oddly flustered, committing silly turnovers and being outworked on the glass, were hanging around mostly because their shooting was slightly better.
“We were so scattered, every part of the game plan went out the window in the first 45 seconds, basically,” Kerr said.
The players knew it. Draymond Green was demonstrative in pleading with his teammates, Jordan Bell and Durant in particular, to be more assertive and remember such fundamentals as defensive rotations and block-outs.
“There was a moment in the first half, I think Draymond turned it over to James (Harden) in the transition, and he got a dunk,” Stephen Curry said. “That's a point where you can have guys doing a lot of finger-pointing and blaming and getting in their feelings. But there was a moment during that timeout after Coach called it, where it was just really productive. Everybody was like let's just move on. Get it together, find a way to get through this little rough patch and just find ourselves. It just took a while.
“So that moment it could have splintered, to be honest,” Curry added. “It could have been a moment where guys went their separate ways. But I think the way that we fought all year and the way that this team is built with the chemistry we have, that got us through that little rough patch. I think we used that to our advantage.”
The Warriors went to their ace, which is not so much an individual but a collective drive that often springs to the surface in the third quarter. They won more than a dozen games during the regular season because the third is where they come together and get serious.
Wading through the constant banging of P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon, both built like linebackers, and the naked tenacity of Trevor Ariza and Clint Capela, the Warriors found their way to a 29-7 run, giving them a 72-63 lead late in the third.
They weren’t going to give that back. Not with the way Curry and Durant (a combined 40 points in the second half) were playing, and not with the Rockets starting to show signs of fatigue.
Sensing the crowd growing anxious and Rockets reeling -- on tiring legs, they were 1-of-21 from deep after halftime -- the Warriors found the inner ruthlessness lacking for most of the first half. Curry and Durant turned vicious, and that can be enough to obscure a multitude of sins. The Warriors outscored the Rockets, 58-38, after halftime.
“Everything we got going the other night in Game 6, we couldn't get to tonight,” Kerr said. “Houston was just outperforming us, outcompeting us.
“But our talent took over. It's as simple as that. We've got three of the best shot-makers in the league. They all got hot at different points of the second half and made great plays. We did a great job defensively too in the second half. We stayed with it.”
The Warriors paid a physical price for this. Maybe it will affect them in the early going of the NBA Finals against Cleveland LeBrons. They have three days to savor and soak, and they’ll need every hour.
||NBA Finals Schedule
||Thursday, May 31, 6 p.m. PT
||Sunday, June 3, 5 p.m. PT
||Wednesday, June 6, 6 p.m. PT
||Friday, June 8, 6 p.m. PT
||Monday, June 11, 6 p.m. PT
||Thursday, June 14, 6 p.m. PT
||Sunday, June 17, 5 p.m. PT