Barber: Warriors steal Rockets' souls in 118-113 win

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HOUSTON — The Warriors stole the Rockets’ souls Friday night. Sucked their auras into a bottle, stuck a cork in it, tossed the bottle into Buffalo Bayou and skipped away to the airport for a satisfying flight back to Oakland.

Golden State’s 118-113, series-clinching win in Game 6 at Toyota Center established two major NBA truisms. One, the Warriors remain the team to beat — despite the temporary loss of superstar Kevin Durant, and despite their own recurring malaise. And two, the Rockets’ multi-year plan to topple the champions has been a failure.

“This one’s going to leave a mark,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said after the game. “This is not just something you get over with. I’m definitely not going to get over it in the press conference, or tomorrow, or the next night. This one hurts.”

D’Antoni added: “It’s almost like, in a boxing match, you have to knock the champion out, and we didn’t knock them out.”

The opposite emotion was on display in the hallway outside the visitors’ locker room after the game, as Draymond Green waited outside to great each individual Warrior who made his way from the court. The Warriors were happy, but it was more than that. They were defiantly happy. Their chest bumps were particularly thumping, their exchanges more profane than usual.

When Green came to the podium a bit later, someone asked him about his team’s “big celebration.”

“I don’t think we really had a big celebration,” Green said. “But this one felt good. I’m not gonna sit here and sugarcoat it, like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re used to winning.’ It’s obviously a great team we just played, on the road, just losing Kevin, Steph with zero points in the first half. And to get this win? That one felt amazing.”

It was a sentiment repeated by several Warriors.

Noting that the Rockets have taken aim at Golden State over the past few years isn’t speculation. It’s on the record. Their general manager, the analytics-oriented Daryl Morey, has made no secret of the Rockets’ quest.

“It’s the only thing we think about,” Morey told ESPN’s Ryen Russillo in December of 2018. “I think I’m not supposed to say that, but we’re basically obsessed with ‘How do we beat the Warriors?’ ... We calculated it. It’s like 90% if we’re gonna win a title, we’ve gotta obviously beat the Warriors at some point. So we’re extremely focused on that. A lot of our signings and what we do during the year is based on that.”

That wasn’t Morey’s only foray into the topic. And yes, the Warriors took notice.

“All year — I mean, for years now, but definitely this year, like we’ve listened to them all year talk about how they’re waiting to beat us, and they want to run it back, and Chris Paul was hurt,” Green said Friday. “And you gotta give ’em some credit, though. It takes a lot of, umm … I don’t know if I can use the word I want to use, so let me think of one to fill it in. Takes a lot of heart to just kind of throw it out there, like, ‘Yeah, we’re beating them.’ Because it adds pressure … There’s not many people that would be willing to say, ‘Yeah, we’re going after them.’ Like, you just kind of quietly do it.”

Green’s right. Morey’s honesty has been refreshing. And he has backed it up by building a roster specifically designed to give the Warriors trouble.

The Rockets are composed largely — pun only partially intended — of stout, muscular players ranging somewhere between 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-7 in height. Their defense is built on switching, a solid response to the Warriors’ relentless ball screens. Their offense is focused on 3-pointers, layups and free throws, and they get there by running isolation plays for James Harden and Chris Paul — plays leveraged to wear down someone like Stephen Curry. Houston even assembled a small-man lineup, with 6-6 P.J. Tucker at center, to counteract the Warriors’ with the 6-7 Green.

And it has come oh-so-close to working.

Last year, the Rockets were about to go up three games to two in the Western Conference finals when Paul strained his hamstring — as Green had alluded. The Warriors bounced back to win the final two games. The Rockets missed 27 consecutive 3-pointers in Game 7, here in Houston.

This year, after a terrible start to the season, Houston came roaring back to assert itself as one of the Warriors’ primary threats. And after getting two ultra-physical wins here in Games 3 and 4 last week, then watching Durant leave the court with a calf strain in Game 5, they had the Warriors looking vulnerable once again.

In fact, the Rockets were established as 7-point favorites for Game 6 — the first time the Warriors had been underdogs with Curry on the floor during the Steve Kerr era.

“I don’t know why,” Golden State’s Quinn Cook said.

He didn’t feel like an underdog. “No. I mean, this team is champions,” Cook said. “The locker room’s full of champions. … They’re a great team down there in Houston, obviously. We lost two in a row here. So I get that people didn’t think we would win. But there was no doubt in anybody’s mind in this locker room that we couldn’t go there and get it done.”

And the Rockets? The window is closing upon them as you read this. A few of their valued role players are free agents this summer, like Austin Rivers, Gerald Green, Iman Shumpert and Nene. Paul and Tucker, probably their second- and third-best players, both are 34 years old, and Paul clearly isn’t the All-Star point guard he used to be (though he played very well Friday).

More than that, you simply can’t expect this team to shrug off the psychic wear and tear of getting bounced from the playoffs by Kerr’s Warriors four times in five years.

The Rockets have a nemesis, and the nemesis is winning. Someday, possibly even this year, someone will dethrone the Warriors. But it almost certainly won’t be Houston in the future.

Saturday night, Andrew Bogut, a 2015 champion with the Warriors and a surprise starter at center in Game 6, said, “It was amazing to steal this. This is the best victory I’ve been a part of as a Golden State Warrior.”

And perhaps the worst night ever to be a Houston Rocket.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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