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Winners and Losers: The Rockets Can’t Beat the OG Warriors, Either

With Kevin Durant out, Houston had a golden opportunity to finally fell the three-time champs. But one Splash Brother kept things close, and then the other Splash Brother finished off a Game 6 win to end the Rockets’ upset bid.

NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Houston Rockets Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

All the good, bad, and STEPH BACKs of the Golden State Warriors’ 118-113 victory over the Houston Rockets in Game 6 on Friday to close out their second-round series, 4-2.

Winner: The Splash Brothers

The Kevin Durant–size void loomed large over Game 6, and for a little more than two quarters, Stephen Curry didn’t do much to fill it. After Durant suffered a calf strain in Game 5 that will keep him out at least a week, there was a belief that we would see the Warriors of old, with Curry leading the charge, peacocking and pulling up from 30 feet and clowning the opponent on his way to a signature win. As if the longing for nostalgia weren’t real enough, Andrew Bogut started at center too.

But Curry was cold. And not in that ice-in-his-veins type of cold, but rather in a way that looked like it was going to cost Golden State the game, maybe the series. In the first half, Curry picked up three fouls, played only 12 minutes, took five shots—and missed them all—and scored zero points for the first time in his playoff career. And yet Houston could do nothing but keep the game tied at halftime. That was, in large part, because Klay Thompson was the fire to Curry’s ice.

There’s something about Thompson and Game 6s. In the 2016 Western Conference finals against Oklahoma City, he put up 41 points; two years later, against Houston, he had 35. In the first half on Friday, Thompson scored 21 points, made five 3s, and drilled eight of his 15 field goals. In the regular season, there were 23 times when Thompson took 15 shots or fewer in the entire game. Usually when Thompson catches fire, the Warriors look like an unstoppable force, but in this context, he was more of a lifesaver. And yet, just when it looked like the story of the night was going to be that Curry disappeared and Thompson’s valiant efforts were simply not enough to close out Houston, the two forefathers of this Warriors dynasty didn’t let that happen.

Curry scored his first bucket with just under 10 minutes in the third quarter. Slowly but surely, he began to warm up, and suddenly he was cooking. The 3s started going in—not just open 3s, but contested and off-balance ones too. Every shot Curry took in the paint in the second half went in, and he missed only four field goal attempts after halftime. In the end, he finished with 33 points—23 in the fourth quarter alone.

Thompson wasn’t done, either. The Warriors were up three with 36 seconds left and Curry was trapped on the right side of the court. He bounced the ball to an open Draymond Green, who drove and dished to Andre Iguodala, who slid the ball over to Thompson. Thompson’s 28-footer splashed in and sealed the game. The ball had found its way from one Splash Brother to the other Splash Brother, pinging through the glue guys who helped spur the franchise’s first title in between. The play was old-school Warriors to a tee. When the buzzer sounded, both Thompson and Curry had combined for 60 of the Warriors’ 118 points. The peacocking that we expected ensued.

Loser: Chris Paul

Let it be said that with the series on the line, during a game in which the Rockets didn’t just need to win, but should have won, Chris Paul showed up. He was his pesky self—looking for contact on nearly every play, and creating it when he needed to—and hit fadeaway midrange jumpers like he was back in his prime. Paul scored 27 points, dished six assists, made three 3s, and grabbed a team-high 11 rebounds. (That the Rockets’ starting point guard had such a high rebounding total is an indictment of their center Clint Capela, but it’s at least a moral victory for the 6-foot Paul.)

In the third quarter, Paul carved up the narrative around his postseason by forcing his way through the Golden State defense with deceptive dribbling and then, at the last possible moment, flipping two picture-perfect lobs to Capela for dunks. But the basketball gods wouldn’t let Paul have his night. He made three of his five shots in the fourth quarter, and he grabbed more rebounds and looked like he was trying to will the Rockets to victory. But Houston couldn’t get a stop, and Paul couldn’t do anything in the face of the onslaught from Curry.

“They just outplayed us,” Paul told reporters postgame. “They played smarter than us and made the big plays, and we didn’t.”

It was a succinct and accurate summary of the night, but it doesn’t necessarily describe Paul’s own performance. Either way, yet another chance to finally break into the NBA Finals had escaped him. Paul is 34 years old; we’ll see if this was his last, best chance to finally change the conversation about his playoff career.

Loser: James Harden

We have to start here: Harden scored 35 points on 25 shots, hit six 3s, grabbed eight rebounds, added five assists, even swiped four steals. It was, by all accounts, a good Harden game. But he also missed five free throws. And the Rockets, you may have noticed, lost by five points.

Harden was an 88 percent free throw shooter during the regular season, and in the playoffs, he didn’t have a game in which he missed more than two free throws. Until Game 6. I don’t subscribe to the notion that a moment can be too big for a professional athlete, or believe in a “clutch gene,” but Harden isn’t helping the argument to prove otherwise.

With 2:24 left in the game, and with the Rockets having just cut the Warriors’ lead to two points, Harden had the ball and a chance to get the lead back—but he stuck out his right forearm and sent Draymond Green flying. The turnover led to a Curry layup on the ensuing possession. Paul answered with a layup of his own, then Curry hit a 3 that hushed the crowd. Harden responded by doing this:

Indefensible doesn’t begin to describe it. Harden has carried the Rockets this season; with Houston performing more like a lottery team early in the season, Harden did everything to will them back into contention, most notably scoring at least 30 points 32 times in row. But that he effectively threw this game away drips with irony. Fair or not, yet another playoff flameout will open up the reigning MVP, and perhaps the Rockets’ entire offensive system, to a heavy dose of second-guessing.

Winner: Andre Iguodala and the Warriors Bench

The Rockets’ game plan was supposed to get easier with Durant out. The talent imbalance had evened out, and they could send more defenders at Curry and Thompson and force role players like Iguodala to beat them. The 34-year-old was given enough space and time to bake a cake before pulling up for 3. But Iguodala hit one 3 in the first quarter. He hit another in the second. Two in the third. And a crucial one in the fourth. By the end, he had made five triples in eight attempts. The last time he’d had at least that many in a game was 2013, his first season with the Warriors. Iguodala’s most important task on the floor has always been defense, especially so in this series, as he has been matched up with Harden most of the time. But he’s more than held his own on offense in the playoffs—11.8 points per game, six more than in the regular season.

And yet Iguodala wasn’t the Warriors’ most unlikely source of offense. With 10 minutes to go in the second quarter, Steve Kerr had already played 11 players because of Durant’s absence and Curry’s foul trouble. Somehow, they were able to stay afloat. Up until this point, the Rockets bench had outplayed the Warriors’ depleted group. It had also forced Durant to average 42 minutes per game. But in Game 6, Golden State’s bench stepped up: Kevon Looney scored 14 points (6-of-8) and grabbed five rebounds, and Shaun Livingston had 11 points—his first double-digit scoring game of the playoffs. Those two spearheaded a 33-point night from the bench, while Houston’s bench could muster only 17 points. Depth has been an issue all season for the Warriors, but in Game 6, it may have been the difference between advancing and having to play a Game 7.