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2018 NBA Playoffs

Hot-handed Warriors force a Game 7 with the Rockets

Stephen Curry: ‘It’s going to be fun. It’s what you play for, to be in a situation where you’re one win away from going to the Finals.’

OAKLAND, Calif. — The NBA official pushed a metal box on wheels to the Houston Rockets’ locker room, early in the fourth quarter, on Saturday at Oracle Arena. Inside the box held the coveted 2018 NBA Western Conference championship trophy. The trophy was for the taking by the Rockets, but it will instead be flown to Houston, where they will compete with the Golden State Warriors in a deciding Game 7 on Monday night for the bigger prize of a trip to the NBA Finals.

“If we are in this position, this is the best position to be in,” Rockets guard Eric Gordon told The Undefeated. “We’re definitely positive. We just have to play.”

Said Warriors guard Shaun Livingston to The Undefeated: “We feel great. Game 7? That’s the best it gets right there. Game 7 on the road too.”

The Rockets have not been to the NBA Finals since 1995 and had a prime chance to claim their ticket on Saturday. Star guard Chris Paul arrived on the Oracle Arena floor in sweats during pregame introductions but did not suit up after suffering a right hamstring injury late in Game 5. But the Rockets appeared on their way to the Finals as they held a 39-22 lead at the end of the first quarter Saturday.

Houston needed a third scorer to join Gordon and leading NBA MVP candidate James Harden sans Paul. With 10 points in the first quarter, Trevor Ariza seemed fit to fill Paul’s shoes. Houston held a 61-51 halftime lead and was just another solid half away from winning the West.

“I guarantee if we start [Game 7] out like we did tonight and they jump out to the lead, it’s going to be 10 times harder to make it a game,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said.

The third quarter is when the Warriors usually throw their best punches. So while the reigning champs were on the ropes, Golden State then regained the lead and took control of the game by outscoring Houston mightily, 33-16, in the third quarter. Curry and Klay Thompson re-enacted their old “Splash Brothers” routine by combining for 21 points and seven made 3-pointers in the third.

With 9:39 left in the fourth quarter, the Western Conference championship trophy was being wheeled to the Rockets’ locker room — but it was just a practice run, as the Rockets were down 89-77 at the time and were outscored 31-9 in the fourth quarter to set up the deciding Game 7. Thompson, Curry and Kevin Durant scored 35, 29 and 23 points, respectively, on the night.

“Defensively we’ve got to be in tune and be engaged for 48 minutes. When we win, that’s what happens,” Rockets guard James Harden said.

The momentum has certainly shifted to the Warriors after their 29-point victory in Game 6.

After scoring fewer than 100 points in losses the previous two games, Golden State displayed the dominant offensive and defensive force they are capable of. The Warriors scored 115 points and nailed 16 3-pointers while limiting Houston to 40.3 percent shooting from the field and fewer than 90 points. The only negative was that forward Andre Iguodala missed his third straight game with a leg injury and appears doubtful to play Monday despite telling The Undefeated he is “questionable.”

Golden State has experience playing in major Game 7s, with its most recent appearance resulting in defeat to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals. The Warriors advanced to those Finals by knocking out Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder after overcoming a 3-1 deficit in the conference finals.

Considering those previous Game 7 results for Curry and Durant, they didn’t seem too interested in reminiscing. But both were excited about the challenge back on the road and made reference to the fact that the Warriors did win Game 1 in Houston, 119-106.

“Yeah, it’s a great opportunity for both teams to come out there and play a great brand of basketball,” Durant said. “I know, for us, we’re going to come out there and be ready to play from the start of the game. We put ourselves in that position now to have one more game, trying to get to The Finals. … Guys are ready for it. We’re looking forward to going down there, locking in and being who we are.”

Paul’s stellar play was the key reason why the Rockets won Games 4 and 5, but it would be a shock to see him on the Toyota Center floor in Game 7. No Paul, no momentum. Harden and the Rockets will be under a lot of pressure playing at home for a franchise thirsty to make its first Finals appearance in 23 years. If there is good news for the Rockets, it’s that they’re playing at home, where they are 2-1 against the Warriors in this series and will have an emotional crowd in red cheering for them.

On the possibility of playing Game 7 without Paul, Rockets forward P.J. Tucker said: “Coach on the floor, coach off the floor. He’s gonna talk, but at the end of the day, it’s the five guys on the floor that’s playing the game, so that’s what matters.”

With Paul likely out for the Rockets, all eyes will be on Harden in arguably the biggest game thus far in his projected Hall of Fame career. Harden actually has a 2-0 record in Game 7s with averages of 24 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game while shooting 40 percent from 3-point range, according to Basketball Reference. But neither Game 7 performance was in the conference finals with stakes this high.

Harden claims there is “no pressure” and he is excited about the opportunity.

“We’ve got the whole city behind us, and they’re as loyal as they come,” Harden said. “Game 7 in H-Town. Let’s get it.”

The Rockets defeated the Warriors 98-94 in Game 5 in the meeting in Houston last Thursday to put the champs on the brink of elimination. Afterward, Livingston told his Warriors teammates in the visiting locker room that it was important to “come together and be tight.” Curry was motivated by those words and added afterward, “We haven’t had this chapter in our story yet. It’s going to be fun. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Well, the way for the three-time defending Western conference champions involves a do-or-die game in Houston with a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals on the line on Memorial Day.

“It’s going to be fun. It’s what you play for, to be in a situation where you’re one win away from going to the Finals. Pressure both ways because of how big the moment is, and you’ve got to want it,” Curry said.

Either way, the NBA will open that metal box on Monday to give the winner the well-traveled Western Conference trophy.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.