Over the course of the last four seasons, Golden State's annual march toward the NBA Finals had sucked suspense out of the postseason.
A slog of a six-game first-round series against the Clippers showed that the holes revealed during Golden State's regular season weren’t going to magically disappear come the playoffs. Then came an even more taxing second-round series against an old nemesis, the Rockets, some up-and-down play by Stephen Curry and the ominous right calf strain sustained Wednesday by Durant, an injury that has sidelined the two-time Finals MVP indefinitely.
It was as if Curry could feel obituaries for the dynasty being prepared — just in case.
“I’ve heard a lot of noise this series,” Curry said. “I’ll just leave it at that.”
Golden State’s 118-113 victory to close out the series was a reminder that to doubt the Warriors is to do so at your own peril. They didn’t have Durant, their all-world scorer. They barely had Curry during a first half in which he had more fouls (two) than points (zero).
But they still had the core of a championship-tested roster, and that experience has them moving on in the playoffs, yet again.
"It won’t be pretty," Draymond Green said before tipoff Friday, in words that would prove prophetic. "But this is the playoffs. You’ll take it any way you can get it."
“That was an absolute grind,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said.
Golden State was 3-1 against second-seeded Denver this season, winning by an average margin of 20.6 points, and 2-2 against third-seeded Portland. In the East finals, either the second-seeded Raptors or third-seeded 76ers will travel to Milwaukee for Wednesday’s Game 1. After producing the NBA’s best regular-season record, the Bucks have won eight of their nine playoff games.
The Warriors will host the opening game of the conference finals Tuesday, and they gladly welcome the extra time off that came from avoiding what would have been their own Game 7 on Sunday. The other benefit from closing out Houston in six games is that Golden State now has to play one less game without Durant, whose injury will be reevaluated next week , Kerr said. Center DeMarcus Cousins, initially feared to miss the rest of the playoffs after tearing a quadriceps muscle against the Clippers in the first round, also could potentially return this postseason.
Without both, the Warriors’ lineup appeared perilously thin entering Friday. Curry, who scored 33 points in the second half of Game 6, acknowledged hearing a “lot of talk this last 24, 48 hours about what we should and should not do in this series with [Durant] out.”
Rotations typically shrink in the postseason but with Durant out and foul trouble keeping Curry and Green off the floor for long first-half stretches, Kerr had no option but to go deep into its bench. The ensuing 11-man rotation featured unlikely contributions from barely used big men such as Jordan Bell, who’d lost favor with the team this season, and Andrew Bogut and Jonas Jerebko, who’d been forced off the floor this series because of the Rockets’ penchant for smaller, quicker lineups.
Behind Klay Thompson’s seven three-pointers and Curry’s incandescent 23-point fourth quarter, the Warriors snapped Houston’s five-game playoff winning streak at home.
“We’ve all heard that all year, that our bench is not that strong and obviously we’re not as deep,” Green said. “Tonight everyone who came off that bench proved everybody wrong, and it couldn’t happen at a better time for us.
“With Kevin going out, there’s not one person on this team that can make up for what we lose with Kevin. Someone can make it up on the offensive end, but can you do it on the defensive end? And if you can do it on the defensive end, can you do it on the offensive end? He brings so much to this team. For guys to step up the way they did, everybody who came off the bench, it was big for us.”
The Warriors’ history indicated they could survive without Durant. They were 30-10 without Durant in the lineup all-time entering Friday, and that included a Durant-less victory in Houston in the regular season.
A road win in the postseason against an opponent that has long set its sights on dethroning Golden State is different, and hardly a foregone conclusion, however. Pulling out a victory with such a high degree of difficulty, combined with the knowledge Golden State will eventually get Durant back, left Green striding toward a victorious locker room late Friday with an extra bounce in his gait and a smirk on his face.