Harden struggles, Warriors role players step up leading team to Finals for first time in 40 years

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If you’re going to win tough playoff games and advance to the NBA Finals a couple things have to happen.

First, your stars have to step up. For the Rockets that didn’t happen Wednesday night. After a brilliant season and playoff run, James Harden had an off night with 2-of-11 shooting and 13 turnovers.

Second, you need role players to step. Golden State had Harrison Barnes score 13 points in the fourth quarter (and 24 on the night). Festus Ezeli had 12 points and nine rebounds, and Andre Iguodala stepped up with his best game of the season playing great defense on Harden.

The result was Golden State winning a playoff-style, grinding, at times sloppy but still entertaining game 104-90. The Warriors don’t care how it looked; they will take it, they won the series 4-1.

“I thought the defensive performance was brilliant…” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “I would say in many ways this was a very Warriors’ like performance.”

Golden State is through to the NBA Finals for the first time in 40 years. They will face the Cleveland Cavaliers starting on June 4 at Oracle Arena.

If you think the Warriors are just a jump-shooting team that can’t win when the shots don’t fall, Game 5 was the example of why you’re wrong. The Warriors shot less than 40 percent for most of the game (they finished at 40.7) but they had 19 offensive rebounds and played strong defense all night — they won because they could be scrappy.

As you would expect, Houston came out battling, being physical (in a game the referees largely let them play), and trying to get the ball inside. On the other side, Curry missed four of his first five shots and his teammates followed suit. Dwight Howard had eight points in the first quarter but, unlike Game 4, the Rockets could not take advantage of the Golden State miscues.

“We didn’t finish very well at the rim, they got too many offensive rebounds, and we had too many live-ball turnovers at the top of the floor,” Rockets coach Kevin McHale said after the game. “Those three things really doomed us.”

Both teams just looked tired in this one. After three quarters the Rockets had shot 34 percent, the Warriors 37.7 percent. Both teams had 15 turnovers. There was certainly some good defense, but there was also just some slop. Throw in some hack-a-Howard — and some hack-a-Festus — and the game was not always pretty.

For the Warriors, part of the challenge was Klay Thompson being in foul trouble — he had 15 first half points (20 in the game), but missed extended time in the third quarter due to picking up two quick fouls early in the third to give him five. Then Thompson missed time in the fourth after taking a Trevor Ariza knee to the head (he had a cut on his ear that required stitches, but there was no concussion according to the team).

It was never easy for Golden State, Houston just hung around and hung around — Corey Brewer had 10 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter as he showed no quit.

But then Barnes happened.

The Warriors pushed their lead up to 15 as Barnes had a nine straight points (including a right corner three off a defensive mistake by the Rockets and a couple of dunks).

“Harrison was brilliant,” Kerr said. “He gets 24 points, and on a night when Klay goes down after his big first half… so Harrison steps up and takes care of the scoring.”

Houston tried but it was just too much — the depth of the Warriors was too much.

And it gave a passionate and starving fan base a trip back to the Finals.