Rockets Sputter Out; Warriors Return To Finals

Mark Bacon—Main Event Sports DC

Getting here wasn’t as simple as history will make it seem, but we’re getting the Warriors and Cavs in the Finals again. Golden State’s 101–92 win in Houston on Monday night sent the Rockets reeling into the offseason. And while it’s not altogether ever surprising that the team that has Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green and has been in these situations time and again would pull it out, this particular Game 7 was more about the opposition, and what slipped out of their grasp.

Hindsight will factor in Chris Paul’s injury and absence from Houston’s two failed closeout attempts that could have broken up what is now Golden State’s four-year hegemony in the Western Conference. It’s true the officiating was inconsistent. But there’s no way around the fact that the Rockets attempted 27 straight three-pointers without a single make, over a stretch that began with James Harden’s miss with 6:14 left in the second quarter, and mercifully ended with a P.J. Tucker triple from the left corner with 6:28 to go in the fourth. 

The awful denouement to Houston’s otherwise validating year spanned nearly 24 minutes of clock, began with the Rockets up by 11, and ended with them trailing by 10. Attribute it however you want—focus, nerves or whatever you call the opposite of luck—it’s hard to win any basketball game when the going gets quite so thorny, much less against the most battle-tested and talented team in recent history. The Rockets had every opportunity to close, which makes this one all the more painful. The dynamic of rivalry between the teams has certainly been legitimized this month, but it’s as clear as ever where the power lies. 

Even then, a stunningly slow start from Golden State left the door open. The Warriors picked up four fouls in the first 72 seconds of the game, Thompson picked up three personals of his own in the game’s first four minutes, and Durant and Curry were unusually lax as Houston leapt out to a 15-point lead at one point in the second quarter. Playing with a shorthanded bench, Mike D’Antoni even got away with spot minutes for seldom-used Ryan Anderson and Joe Johnson. Eric Gordon was aggressive, James Harden had it going, and Clint Capela ran unchecked in the middle of the floor. At half, the Rockets led by 11. The going didn’t get much better.

Enter Curry, whose personal 11-point run in the third quarter overlapped neatly with Houston’s team-wide drought. Of course, he has a way of doing these things, and defending him is often as mental as anything—fewer players in the history of the sport have been able to turn a missed contest here and an unchecked leakout there into an irrevocably altered game quite so easily. He finished with 27 points, 10 assists, nine rebounds and four steals, commanding the game within the flow of play and effectively ending it as the Rockets searched for any type of answer.

Durant warmed up as well, racking up 34 points, and Thompson added 19 while fighting the foul trouble, and as has become customary, there were no surprises there. When the Warriors have it going, defenses have to bend without breaking. Strictly speaking, Houston avoided a full-blown collapse—Gordon, Tucker and Capela’s effort rarely wavered—but there were still shades of Game 6, where a critical third-quarter inflection point rendered the Rockets unable to retain control. And while there’s something to be said about Mike D’Antoni’s timeout usage, it still came down to Houston’s inability to settle down and punch back.

Inarguably, the Rockets deserved a better end, and Paul deserved a chance to close the series, galvanizing as he was in Games 4 and 5. Harden, who still finished with 32 points, will still deserve the MVP award he’ll likely claim next month. Capela will have earned whatever hefty offer sheet he commands this summer, and certainly there’s no questioning their place in the league’s hierarchy. When things break as badly as 7-for-44 from three on the night, you move on. But if history’s windows of opportunity are worth anything, it’s still fair to think Houston may never come closer to toppling the Warriors, as they were built to do. That missed opportunity looms large as Golden State heads home to host Cleveland for a fourth straight Finals, one that LeBron notwithstanding, may not come quite as close as this series did, all things considered.

Game 1 of the Finals is Thursday.

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