HOUSTON — The Warriors wore NBA Finals hats on their heads and relieved smiles on their faces, but the words that came from their mouths were more grave than joyous: Rather than bask in a glorious victory, the defending champions recounted their near-death experience.
History will remember Golden State’s 101-92 victory in Game 7 of the West finals as the night that Houston, exhausted and playing without an injured Chris Paul, missed 27 consecutive three-pointers, thereby opening the door for the Warriors’ fourth straight Finals appearance. But before they frittered away their season with an unthinkable dry spell, the Rockets scared one of the most talented NBA teams ever assembled in ways that would have seemed impossible one year ago.
Trailing 54–43 and in disarray at the half, the Warriors were 24 minutes away from becoming the NBA’s biggest underachievers of the 21st century. The 2004 Lakers lost in stunning fashion, but at least they made the Finals. The 67-win 2007 Mavericks were shocked in the first round, but they only had one perennial All-Star in Dirk Nowitzki. The 2011 Heat crumbled against the Mavericks, but their “Big 3” was in its first year together. The 2016 Warriors won a record 73 games and were the first team to blow a 3–1 Finals lead, but they were vanquished by prime LeBron James and they hadn’t yet signed Kevin Durant.
The 2018 Warriors, by contrast, boast two MVPs and two more All-Stars, all in their primes and all with championship experience together. Failing to even make the Finals would have been a grave disappointment, the type that would have made it difficult to run it back next season without fundamental changes. Coach Steve Kerr alluded to these unforgiving stakes with a bit of dark humor.
“I was thinking of resigning, that was my first thought,” Kerr said, following Golden State’s great escape. “I walked in at halftime, and I said, ‘I don't even recognize this team.’ We've been together for four years. I didn't recognize the group that we were seeing.”
Indeed, for each of Golden State’s key figures, this series represented a sharp departure from last year’s joyride. During the 2017 postseason, the Warriors won so effortlessly, and in such charmed fashion, that their championship reign looked like it would extend indefinitely. Kevin Durant scored at will, Stephen Curry stepped forward whenever he was needed, and the two A-list superstars struck a seamless balance. Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala handled everything else of consequence with consistent, high-IQ contributions. The Warriors were such a well-oiled machine that they didn’t skip a beat when Kerr was forced from the bench with health issues, and they cruised to convincing victories once he returned in the middle of the Finals. Some wondered: Did they even need a coach?
Against Houston, though, seam after seam started to come apart.
Durant and Curry looked exasperated with each other over a missed defensive assignment in Game 6. Durant and Green engaged in a profane back-and-forth following an early turnover in Game 7. Thompson picked up three fouls in the first four minutes of Game 7, even though he had insisted on staying in the game after he picked up his second in the opening minute. On multiple occasions during the series, Durant appeared clearly frustrated with Kerr when he was subbed out of the game.
Meanwhile, Durant and Curry struggled to play off each other, with Curry enduring multiple slumps and Durant regularly forcing shots in isolation. Green and Iguodala couldn’t serve as bridges between the two superstars: The former displayed little confidence in his shot, while the latter missed the final four games of the series with a knee injury.
For all the harsh words and sources of internal tension, Golden State managed not to implode. Curry, who scored 19 of his 27 points in the second half, pointed back to a first-half turnover by Green as the Warriors’ moment of truth.
“That's a point where you can have guys doing a lot of finger-pointing and blaming and getting in their feelings,” Curry said. “But there was a moment during that timeout where it was just really productive. Everybody was like, ‘Let's just move on.’ Get it together, find a way to get through this little rough patch and just find ourselves. It just took a while.
“That moment, it could have splintered, to be honest. It could have been a moment where guys went their separate ways. But I think the way that we fought all year and the way that this team is built with the chemistry we have, that got us through that little rough patch.”
While the Warriors pulled themselves through some early miscues, they still needed to get their offense back on track. Durant, who led all scorers with 34 points, openly acknowledged being mired in a mental battle all series. Houston’s switch-heavy defense forced Durant to think and to over-think. The Warriors’ initial reaction to the switching was to force-feed Durant in isolation, a counter that produced success early in the series. The more Durant isolated, the more help Houston started to send, leading the All-Star forward to force tough shots and make ill-advised passes into traffic.
As the misses and turnovers mounted, Durant seemed to hear the outside noise that blamed his high usage rate for Golden State’s choppy offense. He seemed to want to be the distributor that everyone expected him to be, but it wasn’t coming naturally.
“Sometimes when you want it too much, you get in your own way,” Durant admitted. “I know all about that, especially after Games 4 and 5 for myself, personally, I felt that way. … The game is at a mental point in my career where I'm just trying to figure things out. The whole iso thing was a big thing around our team. We talked about it a lot. I was forcing, I was going too fast on my drives and on my moves. They had me just thinking too much out there.”
The cure was patience and trust. Golden State blitzed out of halftime for the second straight game, with Curry catching fire and Durant settling in. The Warriors were easily the league’s best third-quarter team during the regular season, posting an astonishing +18.5 net rating, and they outscored the Rockets 33–15 in the third on Monday. The Rockets’ run of errant shots relieved much of the pressure on the Warriors, who started to move the ball again and look like the team Kerr might be able to recognize. The fourth quarter was a blur of Durant daggers and Curry celebrations.
“It’s amazing how long the NBA game is,” Kerr said. “There are so many opportunities to get yourself going as a team. With our team, there is just so much firepower that at some point, we're going to get going. … Steph seems to infuse us with energy. Kevin keeps us going with his methodical scoring. But when Steph and Klay get it going from three, that's when our team really seems to take off.”
There’s no telling whether the Warriors will take the right lessons from this series, especially if they cruise past the weakened Cavaliers, as most expect. Will they remember just how close they came—via complacency, frustration and disjointedness—to being on the wrong side of an historic upset? Or, will they depart Houston emboldened, feeling like they only need to play to their full potential for a few quarters here and there to lord over the league?
Brushes with death are like that: They can lead to thorough self-evaluation and wholesale life changes, or they can be an invitation to simply carry on. As great as these Warriors are, this series proved that they’re not untouchable, that they are susceptible to fatigue, injury, philosophical disagreements, ego clashes, and shooting slumps just like any of the NBA’s other 29 teams.
If the Warriors bury or deny their newly-exposed weaknesses, they will be beaten or broken up far sooner than expected. While they survived the Rockets, their air of invincibility has perished.