In his locker room speech during halftime of Golden State’s 99-98 Game 2 victory over Houston, Steve Kerr calmly said getting to the Finals isn’t easy and it’s not going to happen by routinely winning games by 40. He was talking to his own players, but it was a worthy reminder to every one of us who predicted a gentleman’s sweep (at best) that no team makes it this far, especially in the Western Conference, without a tremendous amount of focus, luck and most importantly, talent.
That talent was on display again tonight, as the two stars who went neck-and-neck for the MVP all season long, Stephen Curry and James Harden, were both marvelous. Curry’s quartet of three pointers in the first quarter powered his 33-point night, which came on 13-21 shooting overall. That hot start and Harden’s equally dominant second quarter, also part of a 13-21 shooting display, produced a mirror image of Game 1, which saw Houston build a massive lead, only to lose it by halftime.
This time, it was the Rockets getting off the mat and evening the score by the half with a 23-6 run, almost identical to Golden State’s 25-6 stretch before the intermission of Game 1. A blowout appeared to be in store as the Warriors pushed the lead to 17 as Curry rested on the bench. However, the ineffectiveness of the usually-potent Draymond Green-at-center lineup, plus two masterful stretches from Harden, the first comprised of three straight assists and a score of his own, later followed by scoring four times in five possessions, evened the slate.
Golden State even fell behind early in the third at 65-59 after a three from Trevor Ariza, his only one on the night. Though Klay Thompson was just 1-7 from beyond the arc, he picked a great time for his sole make, which got the Warriors back within one. After a Thompson dunk a couple possessions later put the home team back in front, Curry and Harden resumed their duel, either scoring or assisting on every field goal the rest of the third quarter.
A big difference in tonight’s game was the regression to the mean from the supporting casts. There were no heroics on this night from the likes of Pablo Prigioni, Corey Brewer or Josh Smith, who was particularly damaging in a 5-17 performance. It was mostly all Harden and a gritty 19 and 17 performance from Dwight Howard on the heels of his knee injury.
As for the Warriors, Festus Ezeli didn’t make the same impact and Shaun Livingston obviously didn’t match his Game 1, which was one of the best games of his career. That said, Curry received more assistance from his sidekicks than Harden did from his. Livingston pitched in with a couple huge buckets to start the fourth while Andrew Bogut, still recovering from the flu, was massive, pitching in a surprising 14 points to go with five blocks.
On multiple occasions, the Warriors appeared to have this one sewn up, whether it was a Curry pitch to Bogut for an and-1 or a vicious Curry step-back, but they simply couldn’t find a way to deny Harden, who finished with 38 points, of willing his team back. 12 points and two assists in the final frame alone for the bearded one trimmed the Warriors lead to just a single point. Golden State’s final offensive possession ended with Harrison Barnes missing a high degree of difficulty reverse layup, which also put him out of the play after the Rockets corralled the rebound.
As Houston correctly eschewed the timeout since it had numbers and the ball in Harden’s hands, the final seconds of the game saw the Splash Brothers combine their powers on defense, focusing their attention on the Rockets star and preventing him from putting even so much as a prayer up before the buzzer sounded. A little bit of bad luck and the headlines would be on how the Warriors choked and lost their first game all season in which they led by 15+ points. Instead they walk away unscathed and, in the words of Curry, “2-0 with them playing like that.”
Only four teams have ever blown a 2-0 lead in the conference finals. The most recent? The 2012 Spurs, who succumbed to an Oklahoma City team largely due to … James Harden. All season long, these Warriors have been rewriting decades of bad history. Now all they have to do to reach their first Finals in 40 years is avoid becoming a part of it.