HOUSTON — A standing ovation from their teammates greeted Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors when they finally made it back to the visitors’ locker room late Friday night after the last of their on-court obligations.
That was several minutes after Bob Myers, Golden State’s president of basketball operations, fielded a congratulatory FaceTime call from his injured but giddy superstar Kevin Durant as the game wound down. Forced to watch on television back in the Bay Area, Durant didn’t even want to wait until the final buzzer to join the revelry.
The Warriors’ postgame merriment at Toyota Center was so spirited and unscripted, awash with clingy hugs and expletive-filled shouts of joy, that it would have been easy for an outsider to surmise that they had just won a championship with this 118-113 triumph over the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of their second-round playoff series. They still need eight more victories to clinch a fourth championship in five seasons, but success in a Western Conference semifinal, especially in a seesawing game against the powerful Rockets, has clearly never meant more to them.
“It was about as fun as our first championship,” said Shaun Livingston, one of six holdovers from the Warriors’ first Curry-led title team in 2015. “This night had those kind of vibes.”
Said Draymond Green: “I’m not going to sit here and sugarcoat it — like yeah, we’re used to winning, but this one felt amazing.”
Curry rebounded from the first scoreless opening half of his playoff career to register a redemptive 33 points after intermission. Thompson scored 21 of his 27 points in the first half while Curry looked utterly lost, and drained the dagger 3-pointer from the left wing with 36.1 seconds to go that kick-started the Golden State festivities.
Warriors Coach Steve Kerr used nine other players to compensate for Durant’s absence and started the veteran center Andrew Bogut in Durant’s place. After taking it all in, Bogut echoed Livingston and declared it “the best victory I’ve been a part of as a Golden State Warrior.”
The sentiments were easy to understand on both sides after Golden State plunged James Harden, Chris Paul and the rest of the Rockets into newfound depths of despair.
You thought it was bad when Houston missed 27 consecutive 3-pointers at home in Game 7 of last season’s epic Western Conference finals? The Rockets didn’t even try to deny that it was worse to fail to reach Game 7 this time, with visiting Golden State missing both Durant and DeMarcus Cousins from its starting lineup.
“Well, this one’s going to leave a mark,” Houston Coach Mike D’Antoni said. “This is not just something you get over with. I’m definitely not going to get over it in this press conference, or tomorrow, or the next night. This one hurts.”
The Rockets, remember, had spent much of the past year insisting to anyone who would listen that they were only a “hamstring away” — to use Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey’s shorthand for Paul’s pulled hamstring — from ousting the Warriors and going on to win the 2018 championship. The sudden manner in which Golden State lost Durant to a strained right calf Wednesday night in Game 5, at the same stage Paul was felled, seemed to set Houston up so perfectly for vengeance.
At worst, Houston was an overwhelming favorite to win this Game 6 and drag Golden State into a Durant-less Game 7 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on Sunday afternoon. But the stubborn Curry, Thompson, Green (8 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists) and Andre Iguodala (with five 3-pointers in a playoff game for the first time since 2013) simply would not let it happen.
You can see why Golden State has a ridiculous record of 30-4 over the past three seasons, including the playoffs, when Durant is out but Curry is still in uniform. With the game tied at 97, Curry scored 16 points in the final four minutes to Houston’s 16 as a team in the same span.
The Warriors’ old reliables, helped along by Kevon Looney’s 14 points and a bonus 11 from Livingston, hauled the visitors to a win that inspired no less an N.B.A. luminary than LeBron James to tweet the following in admiration: “NEVER underestimate the heart of a Champion!!!!”
Cue more heartache for the Rockets.
Harden overcame an uncharacteristic five missed free throws to finish with 35 points, while Paul delivered his best game of the series with 27 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. But the Rockets’ star duo and D’Antoni face another long and uncomfortable wait to try again to hush their louder-than-ever skeptics.
“They’re a great team,” Harden said. “We’re not losing to some scrubs. We’ve got to find a way to keep getting better, keep growing and keep putting ourselves in position to keep playing them.”
It shouldn’t be forgotten, especially amid the waves of criticism that the Rockets will face now, that Houston’s hunger to challenge the Warriors is unmatched around the league. Since December 2017, Morey has spoken openly about how the Rockets are “basically obsessed” with trying to dethrone them, as opposed to waiting out the Warriors’ dynasty like so many other teams. It gives you some pause before blasting Harden and Co. for the opportunities they just squandered.
Houston’s bigger problem, of course, is that it already has $115 million invested in five players for next season: Harden, an aging Paul, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and the disappointing big man Clint Capela. The flexibility to make the sort of moves the Houston owner Tilman Fertitta vowed to make in defeat — “I can promise you we’re going to win some championships with James Harden,” Fertitta said — just isn’t there.
The Rockets’ best hope may rest with a potential Durant defection in free agency, but the Warriors, frankly, looked as united as ever as they made their way to an overnight flight home to await Tuesday’s Game 1 of the conference finals against the winner of the other semifinal series between the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers. Their Game 7 is Sunday afternoon.
Although there are bound to be questions about how much freshness the Warriors have left after what they expended to see off Houston, be advised that team officials are optimistic about Durant returning to the lineup at some point in the next round. I’m told that Cousins, furthermore, is also firmly on track to return to active duty during the conference finals from his recent torn quadriceps muscle.
Not that you should expect anyone still alive in these playoffs to be openly pining for a shot at Golden State like Houston was. The championship response from the Warriors in the wake of Durant’s scary calf injury has undoubtedly restored some of their old fear factor.
“You have to give them credit,” Gordon said. “They just know who they are.”
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