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10:09AM

The game was great, but down the stretch the Warriors were not

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — Kevin Durant studied the final stat sheet and listened to the questions. “I thought both teams played great,” he said, as much to himself as to the media facing him.

That they did. It was just that the Houston Rockets played a little greater.

Give Durant credit. He was out there, in the middle, so to speak, making baskets, missing shots, running, leaping, falling and, with his teammates, losing.

And yet he was moved by more than the final result, the Houston Rockets defeating the Warriors 135-134 on a 3-point basket with one second left by, whom else, James Harden.

Say what you want, that the Dubs, who were up by 20 in the first minute of the third quarter, blew the game; that Harden with yet another triple double (44 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds) is unstoppable; that Golden State will be in trouble in the playoffs.

But if you love basketball, you have to appreciate what took place in the Dubs’ first home appearance of the new year, a meeting of the two teams who battled for seven games in last year’s Western Conference final — the change in momentum, the big baskets down the stretch, the reminder that in sports nothing is certain, even a huge second-half lead by the back-to-back NBA champions.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr was less magnanimous than Durant. “I thought we had control of the game,” said Kerr. “We had a six-point lead with the ball and would have liked to have seen us get better shots.”

And have liked to have seen the Rockets, who now have won both games on the season schedule, get less successful shots.

“They came out swinging,” Kerr said of the Rockets after intermission. “They scored, I think, 18 points in the first four minutes. Our defense was really poor. Our offensive execution was really lacking.” 

And Harden, the bearded wonder who had his fifth straight 40-point game and second triple double of the week, was really, well, being James Harden.

“He just did what he always does,” said Kerr. “He’s the master of isolation, the step-back three and drawing fouls. I thought we did a really good job of keeping him off the line (Harden was 8-of-9 on free throws) for the most part. He made an impossible shot at the end. Just an incredible performance. Give him all the credit he deserves.”

And give the Warriors another loss in a meaningful game at the Oracle, where in some two-plus months they’ve flopped against Oklahoma City, Toronto, Milwaukee, the Lakers and now Houston.

“Down the stretch we were missing shots,” said Durant, who scored 26 points but only two in the third quarter. Steph Curry led the Warriors with 35, while Klay Thompson had 26.

“But I don’t think down the stretch is the reason we lost,” Durant added. “I just felt we let our foot off the gas a little bit in the third quarter. They knocked down some shots. But James shot 23 threes tonight. That’s a lot of three pointers.”

Including the game winner. “James wouldn’t have had to make that shot,” said Thompson, “if we just played the way we were supposed to in the second half. The ball movement got stagnant.”

For the Rockets, the ball moves in Harden’s hands.

“He can get any shot he wants,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “His threat is getting to the rim any time he wants. I don’t think we’ve seen the likes of this offense and the explosion he has.”

Harden got pummeled in the first quarter and left the game for a few minutes. “I was a little dizzy in the beginning,” he said, “but it’s a big-time game for us.”

During the day, broadcasters at ESPN debated whether the game was more important for the Warriors or for the Rockets, a bit silly but time-filling.

Asked why he’s so difficult to guard, Harden candidly pointed out, “I think it’s the separation I create, and once I create the separation you can’t really recover. You have to let me shoot or hit my elbow. There’s not much you can do about it.”

Except, as did Kevin Durant, contend that you played in a great game.

8:28AM

Klay Thompson’s big game: ‘I guess you could say I was born for it’

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — This one had all the ecstasy and agony of NBA basketball compressed into 48 breathtaking, dramatic minutes, huge point swings — Houston scored 30 fewer points in the fourth quarter than it did in the first — a magnificent performance by Klay Thompson and, to the delight of both fans of the team and the sport, a Warriors victory.

Delight for the Dubs' partisans, because that remarkable 115-86 win over the Rockets on Saturday night at the Oracle kept their team’s season alive for at least one more game.

Delight for basketball fans everywhere because after Houston and Golden State have spent six games, shooting over and shoving against each other in the NBA Western Conference finals, on Monday night at Houston there will be a decisive seventh game to determine whether the Warriors, the defending champs, reach the final for a fourth straight year or whether the Rockets push them aside.

“I think if it was July or August,” said Mike D’Antoni, the Houston coach, “and someone told us we’ve got to the seventh game on our home court against Golden State, would you sign up for it? Yeah. We’d sign up right there.”

And if someone told Warriors coach Steve Kerr on Saturday when the Dubs trailed by 17 at the end of the first quarter, 39-22, whether he would be similarly satisfied with a seventh game, although on the road, you know what his answer would have been. “We like our formula,” he said about the way his team came through.

And they love Thompson, who’s as cool as the Bay Area spring weather. He had a huge game two years ago when the Warriors were down in the conference semis against Oklahoma City — then co-led by Kevin Durant. On Saturday night, he scored 21 of his 35 points after halftime when he and Steph Curry finally slipped free of the Rockets' defense.

“Í think Klay doesn’t worry too much about repercussions,” said Kerr. “He doesn’t worry about judgment and results. I think he just loves to play.”

And why not? He grew up within the game, son of Mychal Thompson, first overall pick in the 1978 draft by Portland. So to say that Klay was born for his role, throwing in long jumpers when his team is in trouble, isn’t entirely wrong.

“I don’t know if I was born for it,” said Klay, “but I definitely worked my butt off to get to this point.”

“I mean you could say,” he did say, then laughed, “I was born for it. I don’t know. Everything happens for a reason. That felt good, to be honest. I just wanted to play with as much passion as I could. Probably more vocal than usual. If your back’s against the wall and your shots are not falling, you can always control your passion and how hard you play.”

His shots fell. He was 6-for-11 in the first half, 7-for-12 in the second. He finished 9-of-14 on threes.

“He got on a roll,” said D’Antoni. “He hit some big ones too.”

As far as the Warriors are concerned, there were no small ones. And as far as D’Antoni is concerned, there’s not enough you can say about Thompson, whom he ranks with Curry, Durant and Draymond Green, the other three All-Stars on the Warriors.

“We know we have to guard him,” said D’Antoni. “A lot of those looks were Klay Thompson. Talking about two superstars. Well, they’ve got three superstars. Oh, they’ve got four superstars. Klay Thompson, what did he have 60 in a quarter or something?”

It was in a quarter plus, 29 minutes, in December 2016.

But it was May 26, 2018, that counts for Thompson and the Warriors, the victory Saturday, especially when for a few harrowing moments it seemed their season was coming to an abrupt end.

“We were down 10 at half,” said Thompson. “We felt like we gifted them a great first quarter. But we weren’t forcing them to do anything they weren’t comfortable in doing.

“We were going to come out firing and leave it all on the line.”

What they left was the excitement of a game that, for the Warriors, couldn’t have started worse — or ended better.

7:35AM

Warriors lose out in trench warfare

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — It has all changed. Maybe not to the Warriors. “I think the vibe in the locker room is really positive right now,” said Steph Curry. But surely to the thinking of the Houston Rockets, who sneered at the Oracle Disadvantage.

And maybe to the thinking of the fans and pro basketball as a whole.

The Rockets kept telling us they had built a team to beat the Warriors, a team to win an NBA championship. But not until Tuesday night did anyone truly believe it.

Not until they employed the tough defense and opportune offense that used to supposedly belong to the Warriors.

Not until they ended the Dubs’ 16-game home court playoff win streak.

Not until Houston withstood going scoreless in the game’s opening five minutes plus, then held the Warriors to a pathetic 12 points the final 12 minutes and won, 95-92.

This is the reality: The best-of-seven Western Conference finals are tied 2-2. This also is the reality: With the next game at Houston on Thursday and the Rockets seemingly in control, Game Six at Oakland on Saturday could be the Warriors' last of a season of disappointment.

Yes, we move too quickly. But so does the sport of pro basketball. Momentum swings are rapid and furious. We keep emphasizing the Warriors' depth, belaboring “Strength in Numbers,” but on Tuesday No. 9, Andre Iguodala, didn’t play because of a leg injury and No. 30, Steph Curry, played only seven minutes in the second quarter because of foul trouble.

The Warriors, after a great third quarter when they went in front 80-70, looked tired and confused in the fourth when they had four turnovers and missed 15 of 18 field goal attempts, including all six of their three-pointers, shooting 16.7 percent. That’s a reality that seems like a fantasy.

”Yeah,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr about exhaustion, “it definitely played a role.

“I thought we made a great push in the third quarter,” said Kerr, of the 12-minute stretch in which the Dubs outscored the Rockets 34-18 and regained the lead, “but we weren’t able to make many subs. We were going well, so we didn’t want to disrupt our rhythm. But our normal sub pattern was skewed anyway with Andre’s absence. I felt in the fourth quarter, we just ran out of gas.”

Draymond Green and Kevin Durant each went 45 minutes of the total 48, individual highs in a game that for the Warriors, who couldn’t stop Houston’s James Harden (30 points, 24 in the first half) and Chris Paul (27 points), was a psychological low.

One moment they’re one step from the NBA finals, the next they’re sitting around talking about what might have been.

And about the Rockets. “This game,” said Kerr, “was sort of trench warfare. It was just sort of everybody grinding it out, a lot of isolation (one on one). I guess this is the modern NBA.”

Wait. Weren’t the Warriors, the “Hampton Five,” the glitz and beauty of passing and well-screened jump shots, the modern NBA?

“The only way you can do this and win,” said Kerr, “is to have great one-on-one players. You have to have great defenders”

Like Durant and Curry? Like Green and Klay Thompson? Well, the Warriors had them. Durant, although just 9-of-24, scored 27 points. Curry, 10 of 26, scored 27. Green had 13 rebounds. What they didn’t have was Iguodala. Or, in the final frantic seconds, the ability to get off a good three-pointer to tie the score.

“Obviously, we won 65 games,” said Houston coach Mike D’Antoni before tipoff. “We knew we were good.”

They’re good and persistent, or is that redundant?

“It’s all about toughness right now,” D’Antoni said after the victory, in a way echoing Kerr’s words of trench warfare. ”I think there was great basketball on both sides, stretches of it. The rest of it is just gutting it out and finding a will, a way and a want.”

What the Warriors want is a third championship in four years, but now it looks less likely than it did a day ago.

“When you give yourself a lead like that,” Curry said of the 12-0 start, “it would help to sustain it and make the game as easy as possible ... But they’re a great team, and whether you extend the lead or not, it’s a 48-minute game, and we had plenty of chances to come down the stretch and win the game.”

9:12AM

Curry ‘blacked out,’ then was bleeped out

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — The volcano had to erupt. The pressure was building. Boom. Run for your lives. Run to the opposite basket. The lid had blown for Steph Curry.

He knew what they were saying about him, asking about him: “What’s wrong with Steph?” In Game Two of the Western Conference finals, the Houston Rockets were all over him. Then the media was all over him.

In Game Three on Sunday night, in the opening two quarters, Curry was only marginally better, even if as a team the Warriors, playing their signature defense, were much better. At halftime Steph was 1-for-7 on threes, scoring 8 points. Maybe the critics were right. Maybe he had lost his touch. Or maybe, as we ultimately found out, they had lost their minds.

Greatness doesn’t slip away just like that. Curry knew it. His teammates knew it. Swoosh. 5:07 left in the third quarter. Swoosh. A 30-footer. Yes. An outburst.

“This is my bleeping house,” he could be seen mouthing on TV — but fortunately could not be heard since the word wasn’t “bleeping.” 

And whatever the obscenity, it is Curry’s house, Oracle Arena, the Roaracle. And, after their outrageously one-sided 126-85 victory over the Rockets, the Warriors’ house.

Eighteen points for Steph in the third quarter, 7-of-7 on field goal attempts, 2-of-2 on the precious threes. Normalcy, certainty, and in the third quarter, naturally, the Warriors' quarter.

Steph would end up with 35 for the game. He was back, dominant and exultant, and the crowd, tentative at the start, was fully involved and loud enough to shatter an opponent’s eardrums, if not a cocktail glass.

Strength in Numbers. That’s the team slogan. Yet fans need individuals to idolize and cheer. And Curry, the two-time MVP, the guy who throws in the jumpers we as kids could only dream of making, is the choice.

“Steph definitely got it going,” said Draymond Green, who with 17 rebounds is to defense what Steph — and yes, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson — are to offense.

“I think it was very important for him to get to the basket,” Green said of Curry’s earlier maneuvering, “Once he got to the basket, all of a sudden the threes opened up, and they started to fall.”

Like boulders shot from a volcano.

This best-of-seven series is far from decided. Yes, the Dubs have a 2-1 lead, and Tuesday they have the next game at home where they’ve won an NBA record 16 straight playoff games stretching back to their championship year of 2016-17. But the way the Warriors came back at Houston after getting squashed in Game Two is a hint of the way the Rockets, with a better regular-season record, could come back against the Warriors.

“It’s a huge game,” Steve Kerr said of the next one. “It’s kind of the swing game of the series. We’re right where we want to be, but we’re not naïve enough to think what happened tonight will happen in a couple of days.”

They are, however, confident enough that Curry, the Curry we remember, the Curry who hits threes without hesitation, is present and accounted for.

“Steph is underrated for the toughness factor,” Kerr insisted. “But you don’t become a two-time MVP just by shooting a bunch of threes. He’s got unbelievable stamina, physical toughness, mental toughness. Everybody’s been talking about him. What he did tonight didn’t surprise any of us, because that’s who he is.”

He’s a polished athlete, one who understands the problems that that involves and how to correct them.

“It was big,” Curry said of that three that finally found the net. “It was frustrating moreso because I had the right intentions in the first half and got — I think I got like five wide open threes and only one of them went in. I say you never lose confidence. I knew to keep searching in the right ways to find some openings and some things that work, obviously.

“Got the first play of the third quarter and got to the free throw line, and one and one, saw the ball go in. From there I just was in the right place at the right time ... from there it was an avalanche, and it felt good.”

Even if his vocal outburst might not have sounded good — if it could be heard.

“I already know,” he protested. “I blacked out. I blacked out.”

More accurately, he was bleeped out.

9:32AM

Warriors’ Kerr: ‘We seem to be at our best when threatened’

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — Sound and fury. From one side. They signify nothing, Shakespeare wrote.

The Houston Rockets are so full of bombast. “We’re better than them,” center Clint Capela said after Houston beat Golden State. In January.

That proper English is “We’re better than they,” perhaps, is to be taken as lightly as Warriors coach Steve Kerr takes Capela’s boast.

It’s now May, some four months later. And Thursday, at the Warriors' training complex, Kerr, facing the media — literally, they were grouped in front of him — for the first time since the Dubs on Tuesday night made it to the NBA Western Conference final against the Rockets, sort of responded to the Capela claim.

Kerr tried to act worried, reminding that the Dubs don’t have the home-court advantage for the first time in their four-year domination of the NBA, pointing out that Houston is improved on defense and that Chris Paul gives the Rockets “a new dimension.”

Yet, like one of those sheriffs in the old western movies, Kerr was reassuringly placid.

He likes the Warriors' position, which after three straight years in the NBA finals, two of which resulted in championships, is enviable. No bragging required.

“We seem to be at our best,” Kerr said without emotion, "when we’re threatened.” 

The man has been through more than could be imagined, high (titles in Chicago with Michael Jordan; titles at Golden State with Steph Curry and Co.) and low (his father assassinated when president of the American University in Beirut).    

So words from a player, well, they’re just words, and they carry less weight than those from Kerr.

“It’s good to be in the position we’re in,” Kerr said.

“Maybe the hardest championship,” he continued, “is the first one. You don’t quite know if you can do it. Once you get the first one, it’s a little bit like (playing with) house money. But you want it again. It’s an unbelievable feeling.”

Kerr knows the Rockets, knows Capela guards the rim and Paul and James Harden score from inside and outside. Knows the Rockets lead the playoffs in scoring (if narrowly ahead of the Warriors).

“But I like our position,” he said. “We have a couple of championships the last few years. It’s a nice feeling to have going into the series.”

That Houston win in January, by two points, gave the Rockets a 2-1 edge over the Warriors during the regular season. It also came at the end of Dubs’ five-game road trip, and the Warriors won the first four,

“Houston had a great off-season,” said Kerr, not trying to be funny. The Rockets not only picked up Paul, who Kerr describes as a “future Hall of Famer,” but also Luc Mbah a Moute, a muscle guy.

“They changed their focus,” said Kerr. “They went after defensive guys who are decent 3-point shooters instead of great 3-point shooters who are decent defensive guys. They became a better defensive team as a result.”

And, as it has been pounded into our heads in the four major sports in North America — and soccer around the globe — defense wins.

Which is why Draymond Green is so important for the Warriors. He can defend a guard, a forward, a center.

“He can play all the positions on the floor,” was the comment about Green by Alvin Gentry, coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, who the Warriors beat in the conference semis. “That’s what makes it really difficult to play against them.”

The 6-foot-7 Green isn’t bad on offense either. In the five-game series win over the Pelicans, he averaged a triple double, 14.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 10 assists. The Warriors are 26-0 when Green has hit a triple, 4-0 in playoff games.

Draymond is no less infamous for going after opponents physically and vocally. A questioner Thursday asked Kerr whether Green’s style might be a problem.

The answer should have been expected. “The playoffs in general are more physical,” Kerr said. “The refs don’t call a lot of fouls. You’ve got to have guys like Draymond.”

Fortunately for the Warriors, they do.