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The Rockets Couldn’t Stop the Inevitable

Houston pushed Golden State to the brink in Game 7. But in the end, the Warriors are moving on to the NBA Finals yet again.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

“We’re right there,” Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni told his team during a timeout taken three and a half minutes into the fourth quarter of a Western Conference finals Game 7 that hit nearly every single beat we’ve come to expect from Golden State and Houston. He shrugged his shoulders; his team had just missed its 25th consecutive 3-point attempt, a new ignominious NBA playoff record. “We’re right there. Right?

In D’Antoni’s West Virginian drawl, that last word was stretched and pulled in strange directions, sounding like an affirmative as much as a question. Televised huddles are an exercise in intentional banality, but it was a revealing portrait of D’Antoni in the latest ever-the-bridesmaid moment of his career, a 101-92 loss that eliminated him one series shy of the Finals for the third time since 2005. That right? might’ve been the closest we’ll get to seeing D’Antoni express a crisis of faith. In that moment, he became a statistic; the Warriors inevitably draw out that sense of doubt in every series they play.

The improbability of the Warriors’ endeavors in the first two seasons of their dynasty has been eroded by time. The narrative foundation of Golden State games has shifted from an anticipation of the journey to the unbending reality of the Warriors’ ultimate destination. That’s a stark change in how we process the rhythm of their games. Watching the Warriors is almost like watching basketball via one of Sam Hinkie’s strange ruminations: Why do we watch basketball games front to back? Why not watch games back to front, or out of order? Until it ends with a win, Warriors games are out of order.

The narrative beats that the Warriors instill over the course of 48 minutes can be both overbearing and oddly comforting, like a drawn-out will-they-won’t-they arc in a sitcom (yes, of course they will). Golden State puts the league in a constant state of déjà vu: A Rockets 15-point first-half lead in Game 7 only serves as fodder for the unyielding torrent to come in the third quarter, because that’s exactly what happened in Game 6. After Monday’s series clincher, Golden State over the course of the postseason has outscored opponents by a rate of 33.1 points per 100 possessions in the third quarter. Maybe it’s because those 15 minutes of halftime allow Draymond Green a chance to catch his breath and process all of the in-game adjustments that need to be made; maybe Steve Kerr puts on his own halftime show of motivational clipboard-chopping; maybe it’s just the masochism that develops with those in a position of power. Or maybe it’s as obvious as the Warriors make the sport: “Our talent took over,” Kerr said after the game. “I mean, it’s as simple as that.”

Steph Curry acknowledged a calmness in the locker room during halftime, despite the pressures of being down double-digits in an away game that could very well decide the future champion of the league and the moves made thereafter. His third-quarter eruption came and went like clockwork: Curry had 14 points in the frame, which included a two-minute stretch in which he scored 11 consecutive points for the team. It’s become something of a Curry signature: an offensive kick-start that restores order and reestablishes the values that the Warriors have built their team around for the past half-decade, notably the notion that Steph can turn himself into magma at a moment’s notice.

“We weren’t too worried, believe it or not,” Klay Thompson said after the game. Why would they be? More than any other team in the league (and possibly trailing only one player in the league), the Warriors control the narrative that surrounds both them and the teams they face. Which is why the most interesting and overwrought story of the Warriors’ season thus far is what, exactly, Kevin Durant means to this team, just as the early monotony of the 2000s Lakers dynasty was girded by the alpha tensions between Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. It’s the only narrative in the Warriors universe that seems to have real-time stakes: Durant’s first half was the type of uninspired effort that keeps Warriors fans at an arm’s length in their support for him, although, just like the team as a whole, his performance evened itself out by the end. The 30-footer he drilled in James Harden’s face early in the fourth quarter to stunt a Rockets run was a soul-reaving gut punch, and exactly the kind of shot one might point to as an example of the Warriors’ tedious dominion:

We may be headed to a fourth consecutive Finals matchup between Golden State and Cleveland, but there has been a sense of optimism among the most prominent challengers to the throne. “I think we’re very close, obviously,” D’Antoni said after the game. “You know, some things we’ll tweak and we’ll get back on the horse and we’ll get these guys here pretty soon.” This wasn’t a sprint to the Finals the way last year was; both the Warriors and Cavs had grueling conference finals, and they’ll show each other their battle scars soon enough. Time isn’t done wearing away at what, from the surface, looks to be an infinite loop. There are costs to long-term greatness; how each side’s fatigue manifests is the most interesting subplot of the rivalry since the 2016 playoffs.

“Sometimes after you’ve reached a championship or two, the players who were key players might want something different—something more,” Cheryl Reeve, head coach of the Minnesota Lynx, winners of four WNBA championships since 2011, told The New York Times. “So how does that change the balance that made you so good in the first place? That’s why it’s so hard to repeat, because of change. Life happens to people.”

Massive changes are afoot as soon as the NBA Finals are over. So much of what we know about the league could be altered irrevocably. Cavs-Warriors IV could serve as a capstone to one of the most important sagas in this boom era of NBA history. For now, I’m willing to wade in the familiarity one more time. Golden State feels just as inevitable as it ever has during this dizzying four-year run, which is exactly why it could all change sooner than we think. Nothing gold can stay. Not even these Warriors. Right?