It was the kind of loss you never get over. The Houston Rockets needed a win in Game 6 against the Golden State Warriors on Friday to extend their second-round series, and, despite Kevin Durant being sidelined with a strained calf, despite Stephen Curry going scoreless in the first half, despite their star backcourt of James Harden and Chris Paul combining for 62 points on 22-for-44 shooting, they didn’t get it done. The Rockets led by double-digits at halftime of Game 7 of last year’s conference finals against the Warriors and missed 27 straight 3-pointers, but, somehow, this was worse.
“I’m definitely not going to get over it in this press conference or tomorrow or the next day,” a despondent Mike D’Antoni said after the 118-113 defeat. “This one hurts. We didn’t play our best. To beat these guys, you gotta play your best. It’s almost like in a boxing match, you gotta knock the champion out. And we couldn’t, we didn’t knock them out.”
The Rockets can’t chalk this up to untimely misses. They went 17 for 39 from 3-point range, their best mark of the playoffs, and had an offensive rating of 115.3, which would lead the league if sustained over a full season. They lost because they couldn’t take care of the ball. They lost because they allowed the defending champions to hang around. They lost because, thanks to their defensive mistakes, Golden State had its best offensive game of the series on a night in which it played reserves Quinn Cook, Alfonzo McKinnie, Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney at the same time.
“You cannot relax on defense for one second,” D’Antoni said. You cannot forget to box out one second. You’ve gotta be a champion to beat a champion. I just thought there was too many times that we had a miscommunication, we relaxed a little bit or we weren’t really 100 percent sharp. We were playing hard and trying to do it, but with them, you cannot make a mental mistake. Not for a second. Or it’s going to be three points. And they got us a few times.”
One of the 3s he alluded to was the dagger: Klay Thompson’s 28-foot bomb with 36 seconds on the clock. It gave the Warriors a 110-104 lead, and while it was by no means an easy shot, it was one Houston shouldn’t have allowed. Paul could have left Andre Iguodala alone in the corner, but stunted at him rather than staying attached to one of the greatest shooters of all-time.
“I made a false step towards Iguodala,” Paul said, “and that’s all he need, you know what I mean? Klay is tough.”
The Rockets called timeout after that, and, in a desperate situation, Gerald Green had his 3-pointer blocked by Looney. This was not Green’s most inexplicable field goal attempt of the fourth quarter, however: Early in the period, P.J. Tucker passed up an open 3 on a fast break in favor of slowing things down. Tucker handed the ball off to Green, who drove into traffic and missed a wild fadeaway over two defenders from about nine feet out. Iguodala hit a 3 on the next possession.
There were self-inflicted wounds all night, starting with four turnovers in the first five minutes. The Warriors were within one point at the end of the first quarter largely because they had four offensive rebounds, which all directly led to easy baskets or free throws. Throughout, when Houston played disciplined defense, it was able to put them in uncomfortable positions. Too often, though, it could not stay connected for a full 24 seconds. This was particularly evident late in the game, with Golden State running Curry-Green side pick-and-rolls over and over again.
“We just gotta play smarter,” Paul said.
To the Warriors’ credit, their entire game plan is designed to make opponents look dumb. When Curry and Thompson are sprinting all over the court, using screens and launching 3s, it takes a significant amount of mental and physical energy to stay with them. Golden State wants to confuse opponents with ball and player movement, and, without Durant, there is naturally a greater emphasis on that. The Warriors played with the gusto you’d expect from a shorthanded squad, trying to push the ball at every opportunity and manufacture points however they could. Curry and Thompson made incredible shots in crunch time, but they wouldn’t have been in position to do that if the Rockets hadn’t been so disappointingly sloppy before that.
Houston waited almost a year for another chance to take down the champs. It remade the roster in the summer and again midseason and seemed equipped to do it until it didn’t. All six games in the series were decided by five points or fewer, and the NBA will be lucky if the Finals are as tense as this. There is no excuse, however, for failing to capitalize on Durant’s absence. The Rockets had the best opportunity they could have possibly asked for, a shot as clear as any of those 27 3s from last year, and they blew it. Now they have to live with that.