2018 Playoffs | West Finals: Rockets (1) vs. Warriors (2)

Talent eventually wins out as Golden State Warriors rally past Houston Rockets in Game 7 of Western Conference finals

Champs ride another huge third quarter to victory, setting up Cavs-Warriors IV in NBA Finals

HOUSTON — This wasn’t so simple, like the basketball world projected it would be. This was sweat. This was Seven, as in games they were forced to play this deep into May. So the defending champions, humanized by chilly stretches and careless play at times over the last month, are hardly a finished product.

But for the fourth straight year, they’re a product of the NBA Finals.

Isn’t that what counts? In the end, the sheer force of their four All-Stars was too much for the Rockets, who were down a star of their own in the game that decided the Western Conference crown. Trailing by as many as 15 points in the first half, the Warriors rode another lethal third quarter to 101-92 victory in Game 7 of the Western conference finals.

Therefore, the task of figuring out this stubborn Golden State dynasty is once again left to LeBron James, the only human to do so since the Warriors became a Big Deal.

“We’ve got one series to go,” said Kevin Durant.

What the Warriors did repeatedly when twice faced with elimination in the West series was recover quickly enough to save themselves. They fell behind by double digits in the first halves of Games 6 and 7 and fought back, desperately and decisively, using killer shots. The Warriors flipped the score in their favor in a matter of minutes, a stealth reaction that only they’re capable of doing. It helped that each time Houston was without Chris Paul, hurting with a strained right hamstring, and because of that, the West title comes with the unflattering affixed asterisk. Yes, luck was involved.

Still: Champions did what champions do.

Steph Curry and Klay Thompson both figured heavily into those rescue attempts, and they finished off the Rockets with a rat-a-tat succession of big buckets. It was quick and painless torture, and the Rockets simply wore down trying to prevent the counterpunch. Eventually, they caved.

James Harden was gassed trying to pull off a solo scoring act with Paul on the bench, and as a team the Rockets shot just 7 of 44 from deep in Game 7 — missing an astonishing 27 consecutive 3-pointers at one point. So it was that combination of a strong response and a whipped victim that made Golden State the conference bully once again and produced Warriors vs. Cavaliers, Part IV.

“We’ll see what happens,” Kevin Durant said. “Hopefully we’ll figure it out and get it done.”

What makes the Warriors so unique, of course, is their wealth of stars in their prime. What other team can call plays for Durant, Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green? More importantly, that A-list depth allows the Warriors to survive if one or two are having a crummy night. When Durant was flummoxed by the Rockets’ switching defense, Thompson took over that share of the load. When Curry turned to vapor for a spell, Green assumed the playmaking chores.

And when Andre Iguodala suffered a knee injury and missed the last four games, those stars simply worked longer and harder to hide his absence. That’s luxury on a historic level, perhaps not seen since those loaded title contenders in the Golden ‘80s.

So they go into the Finals with the same core as last summer, just a bit more dog-eared around the corners. The next series will reveal whether the Warriors’ problems were due to a Houston team that had the best record in the West, or their own self-inflicted problems. Or maybe just too much LeBron.

He won’t test them. They’ve already been tested.

The Warriors fell behind by 15 in the first half of a Game 7 on the road described as “bizarre” by Kerr. That’s usually deadly. And it was also the manner in which they dropped into a hole; the Warriors had four fouls in the first 55 seconds with Thompson drawing two and subsequently getting heavy bench time. P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela were punching them in the gut. Clearly, the urgency and burden weighed on the Warriors.

“There was a moment in the first half where Draymond turned it over in transition,” Curry said. “That’s a point where you can have guys doing a lot of finger pointing and blaming. [But] everybody was like, let’s move on. There was a calmness at halftime in the locker room because we knew how bad we were playing, [but] we were in this situation before.

“I think it was a level of experience and maturity from our group that helped us get to the finish line.”

Kerr said: “Shots are harder to make, tougher to execute. It’s a Game 7. Everybody’s tense. We lost our composure. Houston was outperforming us and out competing us. I didn’t recognize the group we were seeing. [But] we have three of the best shot makers in the league.”

The third quarter was owned quickly by the Warriors. Curry scored 14 of his 27 in the third and gave the Warriors the lead for good with one of his four threes in the period. The Warriors scored 35 points with Thompson on the bench for all but three minutes. Again, how many teams can pull that off? In the second half, the Warriors shot 53 percent overall and 55 percent from distance. It was an ambush.

Oh: Thompson returned in the fourth quarter, quickly drilled a pair of threes and that was a wrap.

“Our talent took over,” said Kerr. “Simple as that.”

What next? Well, we’ve seen this movie before. The Warriors beat LeBron and the Cavs last summer in five games because Durant, in his first year with Golden State, went ballistic. Here in the fourth installment, LeBron is playing better — at age 33, no less — and the Warriors, who lost only once in the 2017 playoffs, are perhaps a bit more vulnerable.

Durant struggled against the Rockets for about 60 percent of the series and a pair of fourth quarters where he shot 1 for 8. He gave all the credit to the Houston defense, which he didn’t solve until the second half of Game 7, where he scored 21 of his 34 points. Can Cleveland muster a similar Durant-proof system? Surely, the Cavs’ scouting department has cable TV. They’ve seen the last two weeks and the fog Durant was trapped inside.

“When I just decided to say, forget it, and just hoop and play ball, tonight I just tried to come out and play hard on the defensive side of the ball and let my offense come around,” he said. “Mentally, I just tried to figure myself out.”

There’s also the issue of Iguodala, who normally would draw the first line of defense against LeBron and won the Finals MVP three years ago for that work. Kerr wasn’t sure if or when Iguodala would return to action, and when asked after the game Monday about his status for the Finals, Iggy said: “I don’t know.”

Without Iguodala against the Rockets, the Warriors sifted through Jordan Bell, Quinn Cook and Nick Young with mostly mild results.

But what the Warriors have shown here in the spring of 2018 is their ability to survive imperfection. They weren’t 2017 solid, not even close. And the Rockets, arguably, were a bigger threat in the West finals than the Cavs will be in the NBA Finals. Perhaps the worst is behind the Warriors but LeBron will have the ultimate say in that.

Today the Warriors are thrilled to see LeBron. Yes, the West didn’t come easy.

“This is a true testament to how hard it is to get to the Finals, how hard it is to have a chance to play for a championship,” said Curry. “The fight that [Houston] put up this whole series to really, really challenge us all the way down to the fourth quarter of a Game 7 … we had to work for it. It’s really hard.”

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Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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