You Knew the Warriors Were Coming Back. The Rockets Did, Too.

You Knew the Warriors Were Coming Back. The Rockets Did, Too.


HOUSTON — There were the Houston Rockets, grabbing rebounds and nailing dunks, and twisting and shouting and opening up a handsome 11-point halftime lead over the reigning champion Golden State Warriors on Monday night.

And instead of appreciating these underdogs roaring in the final and deciding game of the Western Conference Finals, all I could think was: When will the Warriors release the Hounds of Hell?

This is the soul-crushing trick Golden State plays on its opponents. The Warriors stumble around for a half or more, looking distracted, vulnerable, lost maybe. So it was for the Warriors this night in Houston: Draymond Green, the Warriors’ 6-foot-7 center, was not shooting the ball so much as heaving it like a paving stone. Stephen Curry, Mr. Shimmy himself, was preen-ready but not hitting his jumper. Kevin Durant, the 7-footer with the sweet touch of a shooting guard and the balance and footwork of a Baryshnikov, was not passing and looking to shoot again and again, as if he were stuck inside of Oklahoma City.

The Rockets swarmed the boards and wrestled for loose balls like W.W.E. heavies. Their star, the stutter-stepping James Harden, was hitting step-back jumpers and sweeping to the hoop. Houston’s Mike D’Antoni, as innovative a coach as the N.B.A. has produced, was 24 minutes from his first trip to the N.B.A. Finals. “We thought we had it,” he said later, wistful.

Then came that baying sound.

For a few minutes the third quarter teetered this way and that. Then Durant hits a three-point dagger from an ungodly number of feet out. And Curry follows with a high-arcing moonshot, and Durant tosses down again. Then Curry hits a few more, including one of those ridiculous joke-on-the-Gods moves where he loosens a shot and turns away from the basket before the ball falls through the nets.

The Rockets ended that quarter outscored by 33-15. The sound was of hounds gnawing on shin bones.

“They’ve done that all year against everybody,” D’Antoni said of the third-quarter attack. “That’s their trademark, and we know that it’s not secret.”

The Rockets alas picked this night to embark on a perversely impressive exercise in missed jump shooting. For the better part of the second half, they rained 3-point shots from every angle. Sometimes players were wide open, sometimes they were covered tightly, and none of it mattered. They only missed. The Rockets, renowned sharpshooters who won a league-best 65 games this season, ended this night shooting 7 of 44 from behind the 3-point line.

Harden, Houston’s unstoppable offensive star, once again became strangely stoppable in late May, shooting 2 of 13 from the 3-point arc. He showed up after the game in a firehouse red ensemble and said he had urged his teammates to pick up the pace in the second half, but that everyone was spent.

Did you, a reporter asked D’Antoni delicately, ever think of telling them all to just stop shooting?

“Were you yelling ‘Drive it’!” at them,” D’Antoni asked the reporter in return. He shook his head; he’s an incurable optimist. “I just kept thinking the next one might go in.”

“It’s not,” he added, “like we were trying to miss.”

That registered as a relief.

The Rockets had a problem even more severe than their inability to hit jump shots. Their great point guard, Chris Paul, sat out the last two games of this series with a badly pulled hamstring. And more’s the shame, as this season appeared to offer the Rockets a door left tantalizingly open.

This has been the least harmonious and most beatable Golden State Warriors team in years. Let me offer a chaser of caveats: To say the Warriors are less harmonious is not to suggest there is a rumble in Brother Kerr’s monastery. And to say the Warriors are beatable is not to forecast that they will be beaten.

The Warriors went through the regular season looking like a famous orchestra that paid too little attention to its score sheets. Since the playoffs began, they have produced some fine sounds, and some cacophonous notes. After watching his team clank and wheeze in the first half against the Rockets, punctuated by a fumble-finger Green pass to a surprised fan in the third row, Kerr called a timeout.

What ensued was remarkable. There was Green, gesticulating at his teammates on the bench. Curry rushed in as if from an adjacent room and started talking heatedly. Durant piped in. Klay Thompson frowned and put his head in his hands. Even a rookie defender offered his opinion as Kerr watched bemused.

It was like peering through an open window at a particularly contentious meeting of the College of Cardinals, or maybe at a late October day in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. “I told them I don’t even recognize this team,” Kerr said. “I was thinking of resigning.”

Say what? A few reporters’ heads snapped round. Kerr smiled at them: Gotcha.

Kerr claims he was never worried. An N.B.A. game is too long and his team’s firepower was too great. Given enough time against a wounded Rockets team, he was confident his hounds could chase them to ground. I’m not entirely buying that, although his shooters are in fact many deep.

The problem for opponents of the Warriors is that their attention cannot wander even once in the fiery crucible of the playoffs. D’Antoni spoke of the cumulative mental strain. “These guys, you can’t think you’ve got them,” he said. “You guard them O.K., and you take a deep breath one time and they’ve got a 3-point shot in your face.”

That challenge now falls to that most improbable of N.B.A. championship contenders, the Cleveland Cavaliers. This is a team so profoundly mediocre that it most likely would have grabbed a prime spot in the draft lottery save for the presence of a transcendental talent: LeBron James. The greatest player in the league strapped this mediocre-to-poor team to his back and has scaled the mountains that are the N.B.A. playoffs, vanquishing one team after another.

Now, for his trouble, James scrambles to the peak and finds himself facing off once again with the Warriors and those aforementioned Hounds of Hell.



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