Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said his team was devastated Monday night.
And the conquering Golden State Warriors?
They were simply devastating at money time.
The defending champions did everything in the opening half to gift the hungry Houston Rockets a trip to the NBA Finals in a win-or-go-home road game, but great teams find a way. Golden State became the first team to overcome double-digit deficits in the second half of multiple elimination games en route to another trip to the NBA Finals.
Warriors 101, Rockets 92.
“We were lucky to escape,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said.
Kerr’s counterpart built his reputation on offensive execution, and D’Antonio thought he had finally come up with the right formula alongside Rockets general manager Daryl Morey — who has obsessed over the years about building a team that could take down the Warriors — to win the West.
Houston came close, but in two weeks we’ll be talking not about its latest near miss but about another Golden State victory parade.
“We saw where the bar is,” D’Antoni said. “We’ll let Daryl obsess some more in the offseason.”
D’Antoni knows better than most that the Association has become a make or miss league. His Steve Nash-led teams in Phoenix — Kerr was his boss in 2007 — were the precursor to the style of ball we’re watching today. Houston earned the top seed in the postseason because of offensive firepower, namely a league-leading 1,256 three-pointers during the regular season — 330 more than Golden State — and an 18-spot improvement to eighth in points allowed per game at 103.9.
The last number was due in large part to the addition of Chris Paul, an elite defender who could put the clamps on the talented guards in the West, as well as emerging post Clint Capela and junkyard dog P.J. Tucker, who can defend three positions and make timely threes from the corner.
For five games of the West Finals, it was working. Then Paul, easily one of the most hard-luck playoff players in league history, got hurt with seconds left of Game 5. Remember when Kawhi Leonard got Zaza’d, er, hurt, in Game 1 with that 21-point lead against the Spurs last season? The Spurs never recovered. Neither did the Rockets.
Houston won the first half with effort but its 11-point lead disappeared quicker than you can say, “The Dubs went crazy in the third quarter again.” It wasn’t even one of those jaw-dropping third-quarter jobs from earlier in the series but a combo platter of Steph Curry and Kevin Durant waking up while the Rockets went glacial from three-point land. They missed a conference finals-record 27 straight threes at one point, and 14 of those came in the third.
While some fans railed on Twitter at the officiating, the biggest gut punch was losing leads of 39-22 and 48-33 in consecutive closeout games. Can’t happen against elite competition.
“We had opportunities,” MVP candidate James Harden said. “Even in the fourth quarter. The shots just didn’t go down.”
Just like the young Celtics one night before, the Rockets fell victim to a bottomless pit of of bricks. In Boston’s case it lost to a transcendent player in LeBron James. The Rockets, who made a measly 7-of-44 three-pointers, lost to a transcendent team that will soon raise the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the third time in four seasons.
Overcoming the 3-2 series deficit wasn’t nearly as unexpected with Paul watching helplessly from the bench.
“It sucks because you know you could win this series if we just had one more playmaker,” Eric Gordon said. “If we had Chris, if he was out there, we’d have been playing on Thursday. It’s just tough.”
Harden and Paul formed one deadly duo in their first season together. Harden will win the regular-season MVP award but will spend the offseason knowing that he came up short once again in a must-win. He scored 32 points but those came on 29 field goal attempts with only two triples in 13 attempts.
Harden, who came into this postseason with fresher legs because of less ball-handling responsibilities with Paul on the team, couldn’t shoulder the heavy load with Paul out. LeBron pulled it off in the East but he’s a Mount Rushmore talent. Harden is a star, but the Warriors have four.
One of them, Durant, didn’t look comfortable in the first half but found his stroke late and finished with 34 points, setting a Western Conference Finals record with 213 points. Unlike the Beard, he had all-star teammates like Curry and Thompson who could pick up the slack when he’s struggling.
“They pushed us to the brink,” Durant said.
With all due respect to LeBron — who will have something to say in the Finals — we just witnessed the league’s two best teams finish up in the West.
The Warriors were just a few possessions better. It’s back to the obsession board, Mr. Morey.