HOUSTON –– In every great playoff run, there are games swayed by improbable actors—role players who, in some critical moment, became something beyond themselves. There is a Corey Brewer Game and a Leon Powe Game; a Nick Young Game and a Norris Cole Game. For all the discussion of which stars deliver and which do not, the fate of a season can easily come down to whether a team’s eighth man strung together play after play in the second quarter. All it takes is one player with the right opportunity and the perfect skill set.
Somehow, the Warriors turned in an entire team’s worth of those performances on a single night to eliminate the Rockets, 118-113, and punch their ticket to the Western Conference finals. Kevin Durant, the league’s best player, wasn’t in the lineup. He wasn’t even in the state. With no real means to replace him outright, Golden State did what made them champions before Durant ever arrived: share the ball, spread the wealth and empower one another. Most role players do their best work at home, backed by an encouraging crowd and anchored by a more consistent routine. But the Warriors’ act travels. This closeout game marks the 21st consecutive series in which Golden State won a game on the road—just one of the many micro trends and records that sets their reign apart.
“They come in here down a man, but the way they shot the ball and the way they played—they're smart,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “And that's why they've won rings. We've gotta get there somehow.” Technically, the Warriors were down two men; not only did Steve Kerr have to find a way to fill the 45 minutes a game Durant had averaged when he was healthy (and somehow MacGyver the production therein), but also continue to plug the gap left by an injured DeMarcus Cousins. Even the best team in the league can only spring so many leaks, though in this case the Warriors proved especially buoyant. Golden State started Andrew Bogut, a third-string center who had logged 10 total minutes in this series. In Game 6, he played 12—and helped make just enough plays (against just the right matchup) for the Warriors to win his minutes.
Given his role, Kevon Looney played an essentially perfect game. The gamble inherent to the Rockets’ mode of defense was the idea that if they trapped Stephen Curry, a workaday center like Looney wouldn’t be able to make the plays Golden State needed. This proved false. When the moment came, there was Looney making reads from the middle of the floor, a la Draymond Green. There he was shuffling his feet on a switch, or pulling down a one-armed rebound, or fighting his way to the rim on a broken play.
“I’m so proud of Kevon,” Thompson said. “What he's been through in his young career: having hip surgery, having doubt about his ability to get on the floor, and now to be in the playoffs winning us basketball games and being a tremendous role player. It's incredible. It's a testament to his work ethic and his patience … I can’t sing his praises enough. He was a real difference-maker in this series.” This is more than throwaway flattery from a teammate. Houston and Golden State proved such an even match in this series that every game was decided by a few loose balls or a few offensive rebounds. For a player of his stature, Looney came up with a disproportionate number of those plays—a triumph of self-awareness and will.
Looney wasn’t alone. “Shaun Livingston,” Thompson said. “What a game for him.” The value in having Livingston isn’t the big play, but the quiet one. It’s calming down a possession on the rails to hit a short, turnaround jumper. It’s screening and then re-screening so that Curry can get just the matchup he needs. There were times in this series when Livingston had seemed in over his head—a step slow for what the Warriors needed from him. Game 6 was not one of those occasions. His 11 points were more than Houston got from Eric Gordon, Clint Capela or Austin Rivers.
Out of the necessity of the moment—and in the coaching equivalent of a heat check—Kerr threw Quinn Cook and Jordan Bell into the fire for their first meaningful minutes of the series in one of the most important games of the Warriors’ season. Both improbably delivered. It wasn’t Cook’s scoring—his best NBA skill—that kept him afloat, but his patient playmaking from within the teeth of the defense. And after spending the bulk of his career to this point leaving his feet at inopportune times, Bell stuck James Harden on the perimeter without fouling and blocked two of the superstar guard’s layups when roving across the lane in help. “He made a bunch of huge plays on both ends of the floor,” Curry said of Bell. “And we needed every bit of it.”
In the middle of it all was Andre Iguodala, who spent his night guarding Harden and Chris Paul, while saving just enough energy to deliver 17 of the game’s biggest points. “That game was probably not winnable without Andre’s contributions,” Kerr conceded. In an ultimately doomed effort to keep Curry and Thompson under wraps, the Rockets rotated away from Iguodala and banked on him to miss open shots. Iguodala, after all, had made just one three-pointer in Games 4 and 5 combined. In Game 6, he knocked down five—every one a jab at the confidence of Houston’s defense. After the game, the Warriors bounded down the hallway in celebration of one of their most satisfying wins yet. Cousins was jubilant. Curry came in screaming. Green waited at the door of the locker room to embrace every teammate. Straggling behind was Iguodala, who had a few high fives left in him and not much else.
“I’m f***ing tired,” Iguodala said. In the absence of Durant, more had been asked of him—not only more minutes, points and steals than in any other regulation game in this series, but more rotations. More resets to stage the offense. More box-outs and more floor burns. Every Warrior had to scale up, and when Curry picked up three early fouls and went scoreless in the first half, there was nothing to do but ask everyone to do more. Together, they bought time. This wasn’t exactly a polished endeavor, but it was the Warriors at their extra-pass best—one tiny advantage rolled into another and another until the breakthrough came. When Curry erupted for 33 points in the second half, part of the reason his points came so freely was because his teammates had played the first half to a draw.
There is no great choice in attempting to guard the Warriors. Houston went after Curry at the point of attack, and when Thompson scorched the Rockets with three after three, made efforts to deny him. The weight of the series was shifted, at every turn, to those in the background. “You say: make the other guys beat you,” Paul said. “They damn sure did that.”