BY DANIEL GLUSKOTER
Facing a win or go home elimination game for the first time since the 2016 Finals, the Warriors rose to the challenge in the second half, and dealt an emphatic beat down on the Houston Rockets 115-86 to force a seventh and deciding game of the NBA Western Conference Finals Monday night in Houston.
The Rockets had the Warriors on the ropes early, jumping out to a 39-22 lead after the first quarter. The 17 point deficit at the end of one established a new low for the Warriors during the Steve Kerr era. But the Warriors started hitting their shots at the same time that their defensive intensity picked up. After seeing their lead cut to five Houston entered the locker room ahead 61-51 at halftime behind 22 points from James Harden and 16 from Eric Gordon.
But it was in the third that Golden State completely flipped the script and salvaged their season by turning the game around. Led by Klay Thompson’s 12 points on 4-5 shooting from beyond the three point line, the Warriors outscored the Rockets 33-16 to take a 84-77 lead. It got even worst for Houston in the fourth as the Warriors blitzed them 33-9, giving Golden State a 64-25 scoring advantage in the second half. The 39 point second half scoring differential set a new NBA record for the largest since the introduction of the shot clock.
As the Rockets went cold the Warriors Big Three were turning up the heat. Thompson (35 points on 13-23 shooting and nine three’s), Steph Curry (29 on 12-23 with five boards and six assists) and Kevin Durant (23 points to go along with seven rebounds) alone surpassed Houston’s entire offensive output for the game, outscoring the Rockets 87-86. ”I guess you could say I was born for it. Man, that felt good. We just didn’t want to go out like that. We wanted to force Game 7 so badly,’’ Thompson said. The 87 points set a new high for the trio in this years playoffs.
Playing their first game without Chris Paul, likely out for the series, the Rockets had 21 turnovers to only 12 for Golden State. The Warriors also won the battle of the boards 47-38 although Houston’s Clint Capela led both teams with 15 in under 30 minutes of action. Harden again paced the Rockets with 32 points to go along with seven rebounds and nine assists, but also committed nine turnovers. Capitalizing on Houston’s sloppiness, Golden State scored 23 points off those turnovers. Gordon only scored three in the second half after his hot start and settled for 19.
With the Warriors defense holding Houston to 40.3% shooting from the field, Draymond Green was once again Golden State’s unsung hero. Green took only three shoots, finishing with just four points, but he posted a team 10 rebounds to go along with nine assists, five blocks and four steals. His defense and energy was a large reason the Rockets only scored 47 points combined in the final three quarters after scoring 39 in the first.
After the game, Kerr was full of praise for Thompson, who prior to Saturday had been having an inconsistent series. “Klay was amazing tonight, not just for 35 points and the nine threes, but his defense. The guy’s a machine. He’s just so fit physically. He seems to thrive in these situations.”
Asked about how the Warriors often seem to flip the switch in the third quarter, Kerr showed his humorous side. “Just incredible halftime adjustments. The coaching staff has was amazing. I think our guys, all season long, they’ve played great third quarters. I think they tend to get dialed in a little more. Tonight was a pretty good microcosm of our team in many ways. We have these lapses, and then we have these bursts and everything in between.”
So it comes down to this. Another 48 minutes of basketball (at least) to determine if the Warriors are still the best in the West and will advance to the Finals for the fourth straight season. Another 48 minutes of basketball (at least) to determine whether the Rockets league-leading 65 regular season wins signal a changing of the guard in the NBA, or whether Golden State can earn the right to defend it’s championship and attempt to win it’s third in four years.
With the Warriors now 4-1 record in elimination games under Steve Kerr, the teams return to the Toyota Center in Houston one final time to decide the Western Conference Championship and the right to play in the NBA Finals. Tipoff is at 6pm Pacific time on TNT.