Our guest sports writer Naismith recaps the Warriors vs Rockets playoff series.
Game 6. The second most-exhilarating game number in the NBA fan’s playoff lexicon. And for those of us counted among the lovers of the purity of the game itself-while safely removed from the fray of rabid white-knuckled, fist clenching, fanhood this evening-the promise of the NBA equivalent of a Friday Night Heavyweight Championship fight is an embarrassment of riches worthy of a night’s libations.
I mean, it’s Friday night, right? You deserve this, no? Unless, of course, you happen to be a Houston Rockets fan. In which case you were probably wondering what you did to deserve this.
From the opening tip, there would be certain expectations, naturally. It would be absurdly high scoring. The Splash Bros. would reign from beyond the arc. James Harden would go scoring supernova, in bursts, and get his 35-40, with the aching suspicion that he would still need to manufacture 50. CP3 would bring it and then pull something. Draymond was going to hit somebody and act incredulously even as that somebody was getting scoped off the floor behind him. You know. What we’ve come to expect from these teams.
And even as the Dubs made their way into the Toyota Center, there was this very palpable sense among the faithful that sans Kevin Durant, this all seemed, somehow fair? The absence of the injured, but arguably best or second-best player on the planet (certainly the best this postseason) was the plot twist in this running storyline that only made for a more intriguing battle. Mr. Durant’s obvious talents notwithstanding, the Golden State Warriors are very much a team concerned with legacy. With destiny. And destiny comes by way of dynasty, one of the most impressive in the history of the game.
With the great Elvin Hayes and Hakeem Olajuwon in attendance and Jay and Bey providing additional star power, this was the hottest ticket in the basketball universe. And through the panache of the live television lens, the sight of Emilia Clarke, of Game of Thrones fame did seem to cast an eerie sense of foreboding over the proceedings as we wondered if the awful hand of destiny wouldn’t somehow find a way to make Clutch City a kingdom devastated once more. Blame the Mother of Dragons if you must, but you just couldn’t shake the feeling that Golden State might simply grow weary off all this nonsense and unleash what tonight would resemble an almost nostalgic, circa 2015-style, hurricane, 30- point run, and set the balance of the universe on its normal course.
This was supposed to be the game where the Dubs were significantly less invincible than ever; with suitably less depth than their halcyon days of “Strength in Numbers.” A Golden State squad down not one but two superstars (“Are you being serious right now? They got Boogie, TOO?!!-Naismith, July 2018), these Warriors were now KD-less. Boogie-less. Bench depth-less. 7 ½ point underdogs. Vulnerable.
The first quarter saw two prizefighters, familiar enough with each other to swing with confidence if not abandon, establishing in no uncertain terms, that home court would mean nothing tonight. The Dubs were active and all-business early, with Draymond Green and Kevon Looney crashing the offensive boards and establishing low post and second shot offensive production. Houston, however, had an answer for every Golden State run, that rhymes with “Hames Jarden.” With 14 in the first quarter, Mr. Harden (told you it rhymed) accounted for 50% of Houston’s total offense.
Led by Livingston and Looney, the Golden State bench nearly doubled the average offensive output of their playoff run thus far. Their impact resoundingly set the tone. These Warriors played with urgency as if they were somehow the team facing elimination. Looney. Livingston. Cook. Bell. Jerebko. Bogut. McKinnie. Collectively, they accounted for 20 points in the first half, seeking to offset lost production in the absence of you know who. These gentlemen came to play creating second shot opportunities and low post production. They would outscore Houston’s reserves 33-15.
The irrepressible Andre Iguodala was, as always, brilliant with and off the ball, repping the ‘Town with key put-backs and crowd-silencing dunks. In key moments when Houston managed to assert control in front of the 18,000 rabid fans warning them to “Fear the Beard,” the wile veteran’s and Klay Thompson’s defense managed to quell whatever momentum they managed to begin to create. Mr. Iguodala would finish with 5 three-pointers for the first time since 2013. No, really.
Steph Curry would get into early foul trouble; notably absent from the box score, and going 0-5 in the first half. Still, Klay Thompson, Mr. Game 6 himself, took the reins of offensive leadership hitting 5 three’s and generally stunning the home crowd. Putting on a clinic with his impeccable footwork and movement off the ball, he finished with 21 off 8-15 from the field and 5-9 from three-ball land after two-quarters of action. To their credit, the Rockets showed no hesitation, albeit through questionable shot selection, and kept the Bay at bay in the first half. Still, these were the vulnerable Warriors, weren’t they? Surely, Houston would find a way to redeem themselves from last year’s crushing defeat and take this game and eventually, take this series from a suddenly undermanned foe.
Chris Paul, to his credit, played the game he needed to play, finishing with 27 points, 11 rebounds, and 6 assists and showed that there was, indeed, something left in the tank and that Houston might actually send this back to the Bay for a second Game 7 in a row.
Collecting 4 fouls in the late 3rd and more near miss technicals than the officials could shake, well…anything at, Mr. Green questionably boxed out, repositioned and left several parting gifts for Houston defenders under the rim even as referees rushed to the scene to see what actually happened here. Call it Draymon doing Draymon…uh…stuff. But, then, Draymon was always going to do the unheralded things; the effort plays that make him the sentimental core of the team.
Klay Thompson, an unrestricted free agent this summer, played lights out as he carried the offensive load in Mr. Curry’s first half virtual disappearance. As for he of the dislocated left middle finger (oh yeah, and two-time league MVP, 3-time champion) Mr. Curry would come back in the second half to reassert his claim at greatness no matter what anybody did to try and contain him. He would show up and show out when his team needed him most, finishing with 33 (all second-half points), 23 in the fourth quarter and 16 in the last five minutes.
The last 3 minutes of the 3rd quarter resembled last 30 seconds of Round 11 of a prizefight; both teams just swinging at each other. No quarter was given and none taken.
Going into the 4th quarter, the final round of this fight, it had become evident that Houston’s “middle linebackers’ quoth Steve Kerr, were not the physical factor they’d been in this series so far and Golden State seized their opportunities when they presented themselves. CP3 seemed hellbent for leather to make up for his injury absence in the critical finale of last year’s series, which left so many wondering “what could’ve been,” with a perimeter and penetration game that defied his years. He fed James Harden when he needed to. He scrapped and scrambled for loose balls contested possessions fearlessly. With five minutes left, these two heavyweights were tied 97-97, and equally bloodied but unbowed.
But as the fog of war began to settle and the outcome began to take shape in the familiar form of Golden State pulling away for the last time, courtesy of a Klay Thomson 3-point dagger with 26 seconds left, Mr. Harden offered one last 3. Regardless, it did little to quell the almost operatic feeling that there is simply no way that his team will ever beat the Warriors. This was their best, perhaps their last opportunity, as presently constructed, at least, to defeat the Goliath. One last gasp as Austin Rivers heroically hit a 3 ball with 2.9 seconds left delayed the finale only slightly, and for the second year in a row, the outcome was the same. Eliminated in Houston. Witnesses to history. Again. Harden. Capella. Gordon. Tucker….the Rockets would not go quietly into that good night (though, in the waning moments, an air of terrible inevitability did set in and silenced the faithful), fighting to the last man, even as Golden State conclusively and perhaps, definitively cast them into the often cruel annals of history as this generation’s historical also-rans; their “goods but not greats”.
The Monday morning analysis of the cable sports shows will delve into the minutiae of Houston’s mental errors-Mr. Harden incredibly, excruciatingly, inexplicably committing an offensive foul at mid-court, falling for Mr. Green’s insistent baiting (more Draymond…stuff). Their futility in getting one stop in front of their home crowd when they needed it most. Still, however tempting the allure of hindsight analysis may be, the Warriors simply outclassed their greatest rival. Symphonic ball movement. Seamless pick and rolls. Confounding elevator screens. Circus scoop shots. Hellacious handles. Downtown dominance. It was a renewed declaration of identity by a team bereft their supposedly brightest star. “Please allow us to remind you who we are. Please let (us) reintroduce (ourselves)”, the Dubs seemed to be telling the league.
Golden State played with the poise and confidence champions carry at the cellular level. And with the surrounding noise that seems to permeate all things KD heading into yet another rumor mill-spinning summer of uncertainty in the NBA, the Dubs were saying: “We know. KD or no KD, it’s still us. And we’re still here”.