These playoff coordinates are familiar territory for the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.
The parallels between this Western Conference semifinal series and the last time the Warriors and Rockets met in the playoffs came to the forefront during the third quarter of Game 5, when Golden State forward Kevin Durant suffered a right calf strain and was subsequently sidelined.
The 2018 Western Conference finals turned when the Rockets lost point guard Chris Paul for the series to a hamstring injury, sustained in the waning moments of Game 5. Houston proved able to hold on for a win in that contest, secured a 3-2 series lead, but only for the Warriors to claim the series with a home win in Game 6 and another in Game 7 on the road.
Now it is the Rockets who are healthy, facing a series deficit, with Game 6 slated for Friday at Toyota Center.
Golden State secured a 104-99 win with Durant unavailable in the fourth quarter Wednesday, and after an MRI on Thursday, he was ruled out for Game 6 with a plan to be reevaluated next week. That would likely keep Durant out of Sunday’s finale, should the Rockets extend the series to a decisive seventh game by following the pattern set by the home team claiming each game in this series.
“We’re all, obviously, disappointed for him,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of Durant, who leads the Warriors in scoring this postseason at 34.2 points per game. “Excited about the win and concerned for Kevin and disappointed for him. He’s been on this incredible playoff run, and I’m proud of our guys for pulling the game out. We’ll see how Kevin is doing (Thursday).
“If Kevin is out, what you saw in the fourth quarter is what you’re going to have to see going forward. We’re going to have to find a way.”
What the Warriors did was revert to their championship form pre-Durant. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson combined for 19 of the Warriors’ 32 points in the fourth period, with Thompson feeding Draymond Green for a critical 3-pointer at the 3:22 mark before converting a layup with 4.1 seconds left to secure the victory.
Durant, the two-time reigning NBA Finals MVP, has buoyed the Warriors with his isolation brilliance in these playoffs; without him, Golden State was closer to its vintage, egalitarian style.
How the Rockets adjust defensively in Game 6 will determine if their season again comes to an end at the hands of the Warriors. With Durant unexpectedly lost, Kerr leaned on reserve center Kevin Looney at critical moments, and Looney played a vital role in Golden State winning the rebounding battle once again. The Warriors grabbed 12 offensive boards and finished with a plus-6 advantage on field-goal attempts, staples of their close victories in Games 1 and 2.
“It varies. Every game it’s something different,” Rockets guard James Harden said. “(In Game 5) they got more offensive rebounds. They got a lot more open looks off those offensive rebounds, and that’s what it is. In the games that we won, they didn’t get those opportunities.
“In Game 6 we’ve got to be better. We’ve got to rebound the basketball as a team and not leak out, and try to limit their easy points, their slip opportunities, their open 3s and things like that.”
Additionally, the Rockets have to recall the task that comes from playing without a key contributor.
The Warriors were able to take advantage last postseason as Paul watched Games 6 and 7 from the bench. That the Rockets failed to do the same in Game 5, despite the advantage that came with Durant hobbled, left plenty questioning if they eased off the gas after Durant departed.
“I don’t think we ever relaxed,” Paul said. “We’ve just got to be better.”