HOUSTON -- It’s now about toughness, both mental and physical, because Game 7s are not won by the timid.
“Everybody feels more nerves, for sure,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Sunday night, on the eve of Game 7 against the Rockets. “You wake up that morning, and it’s like, ‘This is it.’ This is the culmination of everything that’s happened the last couple weeks.”
Though the teams are tied 3-3 through six games of these Western Conference Finals, Houston generally has been the grittier team, the desire and even desperation visible on the faces of its players.
They’ve looked the part of the hungry challengers, personified by Chris Paul and P.J. Tucker, while the Warriors more often depict the regal champs, basketball royalty epitomized by Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant.
Which largely explains why the only two close games in this series both went to the Rockets. It’s not that they wanted it more. It’s that when things got tight they were more resistant to giving in. They showed an eagerness to spill their own blood. Win or lose, they’ve already proved they are serious about being taken seriously.
For the Warriors to advance to the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive season, they’ll have to flip that script when the teams meet on Monday -- especially if Paul is able to suit up and somehow be a factor.
The defending champs have to be the more determined, purposeful team. They’ll have to do it at Toyota Center, where the Rockets have won 41 of their last 50 games, counting the postseason.
And it would behoove the Warriors to do it early, eliminating the need for the kind of comeback allowed them to forge a victory in Game 6 at Oracle Arena.
“I know for us, we're going to come out there and be ready to play from the start of the game,” Kevin Durant said.
“I guarantee if we start the game out like we did (in Game 6) and they jump out to the lead, it's going to be 10 times harder to make it a game,” Curry said, referring to the 17-point deficit the Warriors faced entering the second quarter. “So, for us, that's our challenge to have the same mentality we had for the last 36 minutes of tonight and bring that from the jump in Game 7.”
The Warriors of last postseason often played with that feral intensity. The deeper the series, the meaner they became. Being remorseless from the opening tip is how they won 15 in a row before Game 4 of The Finals. Out for vindication after their stunning loss in the 2016 Finals -- the first team ever to go out on three-game losing streak -- the Warriors spent eight weeks on the attack.
That’s how they looked in the second half of Game 1, over the final 45 minutes of Game 3 and over the final 36 minutes of Game 6.
In most all other instances, the Warriors have looked skittish or scattered or oddly disconnected, never more than in Game 4, when they coughed up a 12-point lead over the final 11 minutes.
“We didn’t execute well in Games 4 and 5, down the stretch,” Kerr said. “I give Houston a lot of credit; their defense was great. We just didn’t find a rhythm in either of those games, but particularly down the stretch.
“We’ve had to talk about that as a staff and think about what we would do differently, and we’ve got plans for that.”
Part of the plan, according to Kerr, is to limit turnovers, particularly the kind of unforced gifts mentally tough teams don’t hand out.
“The team that has won the turnover battle has won every game,” Kerr pointed out. “When we’re locked in and we take care of the ball, then we have a great chance of catching fire, like we did (in Game 6). So we’ve got to be dialed in.”
The team “dialed in” is another way of saying focused and fully engaged. Connected on defense, rhythmic on offense.
That’s a start.
It might be enough, as the Rockets without Paul definitely are a more fragile group. James Harden is going to win the MVP award, but he tends to do his best work when there is considerable room for error.
“It's what you play for, to be in a situation where you're one win away from going to The Finals,” Curry said. “It’s pressure both ways because of how big the moment is, and you've got to want it.”
Wanting to win a Game 7 is admirable, but leaves room for disappointment. The Warriors will need to be more emphatic than that, for Game 7s have to be taken.
||Warriors 119, Rockets 106
||Rockets 127, Warriors 105
||Warriors 126, Rockets 85
||Rockets 95, Warriors 92
||Rockets 98, Warriors 94
||Warriors 115, Rockets 86
||Houston -- Monday, May 28th at 6pm