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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.

9:44AM

Warriors against the Rockets? ‘Been there,’ says Gentry

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — They’ve been there. That was Alvin Gentry’s observation about the Warriors. But Gentry also has been there, an assistant with the Dubs in their championship season of 2015, and he was there — literally — Tuesday night when the Warriors beat Gentry’s current team, the New Orleans Pelicans.

Painful for Gentry, the Warriors’ 113-104 win that gave them the NBA Western Conference semifinal, four games to one. But also, in a way, joyous. Yes, the Pelicans have been his team for three seasons. But the Warriors used to be his team, and Warriors coach Steve Kerr is one of Gentry’s closest friends. So for him, call the result bittersweet.

And for the Warriors and their fans, the usual sellout at Oracle Arena, call it expected.

Now the question is what they should expect the next round, the conference finals, against Houston.

For the first time in four years, the Warriors don’t have the home-court advantage, the Rockets finishing with a better record. The first two games are in Houston, and the Dubs could come home down 0-2. More significantly, if it goes that far, Game 7 will be in Houston.

“It’s going to be a great challenge,” said Gentry of what the Warriors face in the Rockets, who Tuesday night also clinched their place in the conference final, beating Utah.

“But,” reminded Gentry of the Warriors, “they’ve been there before.”

So have the Rockets, three years ago — when they lost to the Warriors. And so there’s been talk of revenge, if a bit delayed.

“They have made it known their team is built to beat us,” said Draymond Green, who for all intents and all positions, from center — which he played Tuesday night at times against Anthony Davis — to guard, has been the Warriors' two-round playoff MVP.

“Kind of their, like you said, obsession,” Green agreed, “or whatever you want to call it. It is what it is. Like I’ve said before, that stuff is cool. Obviously you want to build your team to beat the defending champs, because that’s usually how you have to go to win a championship. That stuff has been said for about a year now. It’s time to play.”

The 6-foot-7 Green had 19 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists, and although he missed a triple double by that one assist, he averaged a triple double in the five games against the Pelicans.

“He’s such an amazing player,” Kerr said of Green. “Defense, offense, he was our most valuable player.” Also at times, the most pixyish. Once, during a time out, he went to the Pelicans’ huddle.

“That should have surprised me,” said Gentry, “but I didn’t see any reason to get upset.”

The Warriors at times looked like the team we have come to know: Steph Curry, playing 37 minutes, the longest since his return after the knee injury, scored 28 points, Kevin Durant 24 and Klay Thompson 23, 19 of them in the first half.

The Warriors, as it has become standard, unloaded in the third quarter, leading 95-75 at the end of the quarter. But they got sloppy near the end, and the Pelicans got close. Not that the Dubs were in danger of losing.

They did lose two out of three to the Rockets in the regular season, but the last game, a 116-109 loss on Jan. 20, was at the end of a five-game road trip to places such as Toronto, Milwaukee and Cleveland, and the Dubs won the first four.

“That game was so long ago,” said Durant. “We know what they do. They know what we do.”

“You can’t believe the hype,” said Thompson. “Everybody is already talking about Warriors-Rockets.”

Even Kerr, after the game.

“We’re going to need some contributions from our bench,” said Kerr. “It’s a series where you’re going to have a lot of shooting out there for Houston, a lot of one-on-one play. We have to stay in front of them.”

Even if some think, at the start, the Warriors are behind them.

9:44AM

Steph’s back; Draymond never left

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — It was Steph Curry’s night, as we knew it would be when he finally was able to play after these long weeks of rehabilitation. But it was also Draymond Green’s night because, even with all the other talent, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and once more Steph Curry, the Warriors are Draymond Green’s team.

He is the fire. He is the persistence. He is leader. He is the man who makes the pieces fit, who rides herd on the defense, who crashes the boards, who forces the issue.

Who made sure the Dubs would not squander the home-court advantage they held over the New Orleans Pelicans on Tuesday night, Golden State winning 121-116, the night Curry played for the first time in weeks.

That gave them a 2-0 advantage in the best-of-seven NBA Western Conference semifinals, but the next two games are at New Orleans. “And when their crowd gets into it,” said Curry, “it’s a different environment.”

Roughly six weeks Curry had missed with a knee injury. When he finally got the chance to play, he didn’t miss too many shots, immediately connecting on a 3-pointer and scoring 28 points in all, one fewer than Durant.

“You know,” said Draymond, “it was kind of electric in there, and for him to hit that 3 that fast, it brought a lot of life to the building, and a kind of light, spirit. Pretty fitting for sure.”

Spoken by a man who knows spirit, knows intensity, knows what’s lacking when the Warriors, as they did in the first quarter, don’t play all that well, particularly on defense.

“I had to bring some force,” said Green. “We were playing soft that first quarter. The second quarter, we needed to bring some intensity to the game, and that’s my job.”

As Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry, who knows Green quite well as a former Warriors assistant coach, said, “Draymond can play every position.” And play the school principal if needed.

Green yelled at the Pelicans' Nikola Mirotic and Rajon Rondo, which didn’t displease Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who appreciates the edginess with which Draymond plays.

“I do like to see it as long as there’s no technical involved,” said Kerr. “But you know I thought those two 3s he hit to start the fourth quarter were probably the two biggest shots of the game, because we were kind of struggling, and the ball found its way to Draymond, so those were big shots that gave us a bit of a lead.”

The consecutive 3-pointers, the first 16 seconds into the fourth quarter, the next 16 seconds after that, put Golden State in front, 94-86.

Green had 20 points and team highs of 12 assists and nine rebounds.

“Draymond has been phenomenal throughout the playoffs,” said Kerr. “He’s been saving himself for the playoffs. It’s a long regular season, especially after three straight trips to the finals. And you can tell the difference in the intensity from a lot of our guys, but Draymond in particular.”

Green said about the same thing.

“I live for playoff basketball,” said Draymond. ”It’s the most fun time of the year for me, just locking in and focusing, kind of taking what the defense gives me. You know, just trying to create for my teammates in any way I possibly can.

“When you’re playing a great team like (New Orleans), a team with so many options and weapons, I have to be a threat. I think I’ve done a decent job so far.”

Curry’s return was special, of course. You can’t lose a two-time MVP and not be affected. There were games when others had the same deep open shots as Curry gets but failed to connect.

“I’ve been real eager of late to get back out with my teammates,” said Curry. To play some playoff basketball and get a big win. It was huge.”

He wasn’t in the starting lineup. “Seemed like it was forever,” Curry said of finally getting into the game. “It was a good feeling.”

Durant was asked what Curry was like when he can’t play basketball.

“That’s a good question,” said Durant. “Very anxious. Couple days ago in practice, he couldn’t stop running and jumping and making weird noises. So I’m glad he’s back. I was a little worried about him for a second.”