• Stephen Curry

    The Golden State Warriors faced a different type of pressure coming out of intermission. With the season on the line, though, the defending champions did pretty much exactly what they always do in the third quarter – and they have another chance at a title to show for it. The Warriors stormed back from an 11-point halftime deficit to beat the short-handed Houston Rockets 101-92 in Game 7, winning the Western Conference to punch their fourth straight ticket to the NBA Finals.

    Kevin Durant led all scorers with 34 points on 11-of-21 shooting, also chipping in five rebounds, five assists and three blocks. It was another former MVP who keyed Golden State’s game-changing third-quarter run, though. Steph Curry scored 14 points and drained four triples in the third quarter alone, finishing a stellar all-around effort with 29 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists and four steals. Klay Thompson, fighting early foul trouble, scored 19 points on 13 shots, but his biggest impact came on the other end of the floor, where he slowed James Harden after the Rockets superstar got his team out to an early double-digit lead.

    Harden’s numbers, 32 points, six rebounds, six assists and four steals, were stellar. He made several splash plays on defense, and was instrumental in Clint Capela, who had 20 points on 9-of-10 shooting, finding traction as a pick-and-roll dive man. But Harden, absent the steadying and energy-preserving presence of Chris Paul, struggled after a hot start, scoring 18 points on 8-of-23 from the field in the game’s last three quarters. Unfortunately for Harden, he wasn’t the only member of his team who couldn’t buy a jumper after pre-game adrenaline finally wore off.

    Trevor Ariza, exhausted from the arduous task of beginning possessions guarding Curry, went scoreless in 42 minutes, missing all 12 of his shot attempts – nine of which came from beyond the arc. Eric Gordon was dominant as a playmaker at times, picking up Paul’s slack with 23 points and six assists, but went just 2-of-12 from three. Harden was 2-of-13. Basically, the numbers game upon which the Rockets relied to win 65 games and set numerous long-range shooting records failed them at the worst possible time. Houston was an abysmal 7-of-44 from 3-point range in Game 7, good for 15.9 percent shooting – its worst mark of the entire 2017-18 season.

    Gordon’s 29-foot launch midway through the third quarter put his team up 42-28; it wasn’t for a full two quarters later until Houston drained its next three, from Tucker in the corner. Not only did the Rockets misfire on a playoff record 27 consecutive triples between those makes, but Golden State had suddenly turned a 14-point hole into a 10-point cushion. There was just nothing Houston could do stop the bleeding when its threes, many of which were of the catch-and-shoot variety, refused to drop over and over, and Curry was simultaneously doing stuff like this.

    The Warriors outscored the Rockets 33-15 in the third quarter, taking a seven-point lead into the final stanza. That’s when Durant took over. After forcing the issue on offense early and being bullied on the glass by Capela and P.J. Tucker, Durant scored 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting the fourth quarter, ensuring Houston’s long-shot comeback bid would fall short and looking every bit the reigning Finals MVP.

    “Our talent took over,” Steve Kerr said. “It’s as simple as that.”

    The fact it came to that at all for Golden State to beat Houston with a frustrated Paul watching from the bench was surprising. The Warriors had six turnovers in the first quarter. Tucker, valiant in another defeat, had as many offensive rebounds in the first half by himself as they did in total. Draymond Green, awesome as he was as a distributor and back-line defender, went 0-of-5 from 3-point range on wide-open shots . Golden State resorted to intentionally fouling Capela in both the second and fourth quarters, first to cut into a lead and then to protect one of its own.

    Stuff like that is hardly befitting the Warriors’ status as heavy championship favorites and a modern-day dynasty. The Rockets deserve immense credit for pushing them to the edge, and then forcing Curry and Durant to keep their team from falling. Houston isn’t a gimmick. If Paul was healthy, perhaps a different team would be representing the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. But it’s Golden State again, and a familiar foe awaits.

    “It’s going to be a fun one, an exciting one,” Durant said of another matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron’s playing – I don’t even know, I can’t even describe how he’s playing. It’s like next level basketball, so we got our work cut out for us.”

    That remains to be seen. If it indeed proves the case, though, the Warriors, having staved off elimination twice, can take solace from knowing they again rose to the occasion when there was no other option.

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