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  • Golden State returned to its egalitarian style of offense to force Game 7 against Houston. Who will emerge to reach the NBA Finals?
By Rohan Nadkarni
May 27, 2018

The series the NBA world has been waiting for will go the distance. The Warriors forced a Game 7 in the West finals with a dominant win Saturday, besting the Rockets 115–86. Houston built a 17-point lead in the first quarter, but Golden State responded with a throwback performance to keep its season alive. Facing elimination for the first time since the 2016 Finals, Stephen Curry scored 29 points, while Klay Thompson added 35 of his own. James Harden scored 32 in a losing effort.

On Saturday, the Warriors looked more like the team that swept through the West last year than the one that has struggled offensively against the Rockets. Curry was the engine, particularly in the second half. Steve Kerr eschewed the Kevin Durant isos and post-ups that allowed Houston to shrink the floor on defense in previous games. In their place, Golden State substituted the ball movement and off-ball cuts it’s become famous for. The longer the Warriors played their trademark style of basketball, the better looks they found as the game continued.

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Thompson was remarkable in Game 6, so much so that Jay-Z will have to consider a shoutout in his next album. Taking advantage of his team’s re-discovery of an egalitarian style of play, Thompson hit nine threes. He was energetic on both ends of the court, often picking up Harden fullcourt. Curry was also awesome, draining five threes of his own. The Warriors simply hit their peak after the first quarter, settling into a devastating flow on offense while locking in defensively. After a 39-point first quarter, the Rockets scored only 47 the rest of the game, including a disastrous nine points in the fourth quarter.

Harden did his best to dispel the narrative that he folds in big moments. The presumptive MVP was relentless in attacking Saturday, but his nine turnovers were a serious black mark on a gutsy performance. Harden was arguably robbed of a few calls in the fourth, but his giveaways stood as a bigger issue. The Rockets turned the ball over 21 times as a team, allowing the Warriors to come back and then eventually run away with the game. Golden State scored 23 points off Houston turnovers, and its offense certainly didn’t need the extra help.

With Mike D’Antoni unwilling to go deep into his bench, Houston didn’t have the energy to keep up its first-quarter pace for a full 48. Reserves played in garbage time, but the burden on Harden, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker was too high. For Harden especially, Saturday’s game had to be a stark reminder of how difficult his life was without Chris Paul. The Rockets can’t blame this loss solely on Paul’s hamstring injury, but his absence had a clear effect on Houston’s already thin rotation.

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Paul’s status will loom large over Game 7, but it may not mean anything if the Warriors finally play up to their potential. Saturday should provide more than enough evidence to Kerr that his team runs better when one player isn’t being force-fed the ball. After some mild criticism for his style of play, Durant still had an impactful game—he scored 23 points and repeatedly got to the free-throw line to offset inefficiency from the field. But even the Rockets’ physical, focused defense will struggle to keep up with constant movement and having to guard the entire floor, and the Warriors did more of that Saturday.  

Houston will need a more efficient performance from Harden to win Game 7, and ideally another big night from its role players. Luc Mbah a Moute re-entered the rotation in the wake of Paul’s injury, but he couldn’t offer much on either end of the floor.

In an ideal world, both teams will be fully healthy for Monday night. Paul and Andre Iguodala are both missed in these big moments. Despite Saturday’s blowout, Houston still has what it wants: One game at home for a chance at the NBA Finals. For so much of the NBA season, a Warriors championship seemed like an inevitability. The Rockets have made them bleed. Houston will have one last chance to take out one of the league’s all-time teams. What Golden State proved Saturday is that the reigning champ won’t go out without a hell of a fight.

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