* Tonight on ESPN: Game 6, Warriors vs. Rockets (9 ET)
HOUSTON — This is the very city that conquered doubt and the fog of uncertainty in the NBA postseason, where the then-coach famously scolded the skeptics by saying: “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”
Rudy Tomjanovich uttered those immortal words about his Rockets some 25 years ago, a mantra now being adopted by the coach who’s trying to beat Houston in a series that’s suddenly shaken by suspense.
Steve Kerr won’t have Kevin Durant, who — in Kerr’s widely-shared opinion — “has been the best player in the NBA in these playoffs” for the rest of this series. Yet with Durant ailing with a strained calf muscle, the Warriors haven’t been stripped completely bare on the floor or, just as important, on their fingers, which are decorated with bling and the credibility that goes with it.
“We know the challenge ahead is a big one,” Kerr said. “But they’re champions and I think there’s an advantage to having championship experience. This group will never be doubted.”
The Warriors bring a 3-2 series lead, the comfort of knowing a potential Game 7 would be in Oakland, and a proven core led by Stephen Curry. Still, beating the Rockets without Durant is the steepest roadblock in this Kerr dynasty. He’s that good of a player, obviously, and the Rockets with James Harden are that much of a threat.
That said, the Warriors faced a pair of elimination games three years ago against Durant and his erstwhile Oklahoma City teammates. Then Klay Thompson went scorched earth with 41 points in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals. That effort was followed by a collective Golden State showing in the clincher a few nights later.
Still, the task at hand represents a bind for the two-time defending champions. Durant has served as a security blanket throughout these playoffs, while Curry and Thompson have struggled with their shot in this series, especially from 3-point range. Whenever the Warriors needed bailing out, Durant usually came through with smashing results. Now, that high-level insurance will be missing from this series and perhaps a portion of the Western Conference finals (if the Warriors advance).
The MRI on Durant’s calf showed a strain and he didn’t travel to Houston. He had a similar injury last season and missed nearly two weeks. All this makes for a throwback challenge for the Warriors, to see if they can muster the same amount of production at both ends as they did before Durant arrived. Those results earned them two trips to the NBA Finals, one championship and a record-setting 73-win season.
“He’s had (this injury) before and he’s responded well,” Kerr said. “We’re disappointed he won’t be able to play in this series, but if we can win the series and move on it will look good for his return in the near future.”
Kerr is citing the past in order to rouse his team’s confidence, although the present doesn’t exactly equal the past.
For starters, Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Andrew Bogut were all younger and friskier. Of the three, only Iguodala is flourishing, and only to a degree. With Durant out, the Warriors will lean on Iguodala to play more minutes and be more active in looking for his shot. Livingston’s role in the rotation is diminished and Bogut is virtually out of it.
We’ll just find somebody on the bench who can give us 35 points, two blocks and 10 boards.”
Warriors coach Steve Kerr, on replacing Kevin Durant
Speaking of the bench, it’s weaker than before, when the Warriors had Marreese Speights, Leandro Barbosa and others. That means Kerr will press his role players for more — can they deliver, especially in such a heightened situation?
“We’ll just find somebody on the bench who can give us 35 points, two blocks and 10 boards,” Kerr wisecracked. “Obviously it’s a huge loss, but our team has a lot of confidence. We trust each other. We’ve won championships together, so we come out and give it our best shot.
“We’ll try to mix and match some lineups and find contributions where we haven’t had them in this series. Guys who haven’t had the opportunity will get it. Yes, it’ll be a little different, but no reason why we can’t go get a win. It’s about finding the right rotations and combinations and getting enough minutes for our core guys to get some rest.”
For certain, the Warriors can’t afford any of the mainstays — Curry, Thompson, Draymond Green — to falter. They’ll be asked to play in the 40-minute range and must avoid foul trouble while fighting against fatigue. Assuming that Harden seeks to make amends for disappearing in the fourth quarter of Game 5 and goes iso all night, would it be unreasonable to say the Warriors will require a combined 60 points from Curry and Thompson?
“We obviously turn to Steph to generate much of our offense,” Kerr said. “It’s not that we’ve gone away from that over the years. It’s just with Kevin, we have a weapon and we sort of mixed in different styles and different offensive starting points. The one good thing is we do have experience for when before Kevin was here, with Steph, Klay, Draymond, Andre, Shaun, those core guys. We’ve been successful. That’s not to say it’s the same as a few years ago but we’re comfortable that we can be successful with that group.”
All season, Kerr has sung the praises of Kevin Looney, the Warriors’ developing young power forward. Looney repaid that faith Wednesday by taming Rockets menace PJ Tucker and making plays in the closing moments that contributed to the win after Durant left. Looney might now get starter’s minutes, which could allow his flaws surface.
As always, eliminating a team in its own building is a heavy-lifting circumstance.
“We’re in a great spot,” Kerr said. “We’re up, 3-2, and bringing championship rings on our fingers and a lot of confidence that comes with that. This group has nothing to prove so there’s a freedom that comes with it. We’re obviously being hit with injuries which is part of it, one of the reasons why it’s so hard to win a championship. They generally happen to every team at some point. This is the hardest we’ve been hit.”
No time for self-pity though. The Warriors get two chances to win one, and it could be the hardest “one” they’ve seen, at least in these playoffs.
“The challenge is here right in front of our guys,” Kerr said, “and all we have to win is one game.”
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