HOUSTON — The Golden State Warriors were stretched, harried and at times even bullied by the Houston Rockets. Through seven games over a span of 15 days, they often looked well shy of their supposed invincibility.
Yet you will be seeing these Warriors on the game’s biggest stage once again — confronting LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers for the fourth June in a row — because they summoned the requisite mixture of toughness, shotmaking and, well, clutchness Monday night to survive their first true state of emergency in the Kevin Durant era.
Perhaps the Warriors also needed the absence of the injured Chris Paul to complete their comeback, but the visitors uncorked their customary third-quarter haymaker and ultimately delivered a 101-92 victory over the Rockets in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals at Toyota Center.
“It could have splintered, where guys went their separate ways,” said the Golden State star Stephen Curry. “The chemistry we have got us through the rough patch.”
Led by Kevin Durant’s 34 points and Curry’s 27 — including 11 points in a row from Curry during a critical game-turning stretch after intermission — Golden State erased a deficit that climbed as high as 15 points in the first half and overcame Klay Thompson’s rare foul trouble to complete a memorable rebound from what was at one point a 3-2 deficit in the series. The Rockets played a role in their own demise, too, supporting the notion that fatigue eventually overwhelmed them by missing a playoff record 27 consecutive attempts from 3-point range after making six of their first 14 tries from long range.
The Warriors thus survived a series many billed as this season’s true N.B.A. finals — in a nod to top-seeded Houston’s 65-win campaign and Golden State’s standing as the league’s biggest preseason favorite since the days of Michael Jordan — to advance to yet another finals showdown with James.
Act IV of the teams’ long-running rivalry is guaranteed to be historic no matter how big a mismatch it appears on paper in Golden State’s favor, as never before in any of North America’s four major team sports have the same two teams met to decide the championship four times in a row.
A fading James Harden led the Rockets with 32 points but made just 12 of 29 shots from the field, including an unsightly 2-for-13 showing from 3-point range.
“One half of basketball … two games … Games 6 and 7,” Harden said wistfully, struggling to process the fact that Golden State rang up a 33-15 margin in its favorite quarter in Game 7 after winning the second half of Game 6 in a ridiculous 61-25 rout.
Said Rockets guard Eric Gordon, who missed 10 of 12 3-point attempts: “If Chris was out there, we’d be playing on Thursday.”
After confirming about 90 minutes before tipoff that Paul would be unavailable, Houston had to settle, in the end, for giving Golden State an almighty scare — thanks largely to those narrow victories in Games 4 and 5 that obscured the fact they were outscored by 63 points over the course of the series.
To the Warriors, though, it was a far closer battle than that — with Golden State well aware that its remarkable 68-point cumulative edge in the series’ seven third quarters made a huge difference. The quick 17-point lead that the Rockets seized in Game 6 with Paul rooted to the bench had even the Golden State coach Steve Kerr convinced that Houston “could see the finals at that point.”
But Houston’s 11-point lead at halftime lead in Game 7, in a virtual replay of Game 6, didn’t hold in the face of yet another third-quarter rush from the reigning champions. At the most critical point of the season, Harden no longer had Paul to share the playmaking or the pressure burden that the Rockets had purposefully split between them all season, hoping to keep both fresh and impactful throughout a long playoff run.
“It’s the worst thing that could happen to him,” Houston Coach Mike D’Antoni said of Paul, referring to the emotional hit taken by the All-Star guard to miss out on the game that could have sent him to the finals for the first time.
Harden, Paul and D’Antoni quickly formed a close bond through their respective past playoff disappointments — and the opportunity to banish their demons and rewrite their legacies together. The opportunity at hand, as a result, made the tension tangible even before tipoff.
“You don’t buy heart at the supermarket,” D’Antoni said during his pregame news conference. “They’ve got it and we’ve got it. And we’ll see what happens.”
Neither heart nor Harden nor game contributions from Clint Capela (20 points and 9 rebounds), Gordon (23 points) and P.J. Tucker (14 points and 12 rebounds) were quite enough for a team that, in the very frank words of its general manager Daryl Morey, have long been “obsessed” with toppling the Warriors. Golden State found a way to overcome Thompson’s three fouls in the first 3 minutes 39 seconds of the game, Durant’s shaky start (three missed free throws in the first quarter) and Golden State’s own significant absentee: Andre Iguodala.
The veteran swingman Iguodala, plagued by a lower leg contusion he sustained in a collision with Harden in Game 3, missed the final four games of the series.
“A big blow for us,” Kerr said.
It will most likely take multiple championships for the Warriors to feel they’ve truly avenged their unprecedented collapse from 3-1 in the 2016 N.B.A. finals. But surviving two elimination games and winning a Game 7 on the road — deep into a season they were widely expected to dominate — is a start.
“We haven’t been in this position before,” Curry said after Houston had seized a 3-2 lead. He went to call it “a chapter we need to figure out and finish this story.”
Without Iguodala, who certainly isn’t the Warriors’ best player but is widely considered through the organization as the smartest, they figured it out indeed.
”Hats off to them,” D’Antoni said. “But I think we’ve very close — obviously. Some things we’ll tweak and we’ll get back on the horse and we’ll get these guys here pretty soon.”