HOUSTON -- It wasn't a championship celebration. But it was close.
As each player made his way into theGolden State Warriors' locker room after their Game 6 118-113 elimination win over the Houston Rocketsin the Western Conference semifinals Friday, there were waves of yells, applause and backslapping. Eleven of them had played and nine of them had scored. Each had a moment to be appreciated.
"Great rebound." "Awesome getting that loose ball." "Huge putback."
As each man entered the room, he turned and waited for the next, creating a huddle at the end of a tunnel of coaches, staff members and support personnel. The so-called "core four" came last, like a wedding party entering a rocking reception.
First Andre Iguodala and then Draymond Green, grabbing each other and hugging tightly. Then Klay Thompson, who barked with joy in rare form from the stoic star. Finally,Stephen Curry, his left hand throbbing from the reaggravation of a left finger injury, a 4-year-old pair of shoes on his feet, and a wide smile spread across his face after one of the most bizarre and wonderful nights of his career.
"This was one of the best wins we've had in my nine years as owner," said Warriors owner Joe Lacob, who has raised three championship trophies.
To understand this feeling requires some nuance. The Warriors were basking in this victory because they'd beaten their rival on the rival's home floor, sending the Rockets into a miserable offseason for a second year in a row and fourth time in five years.
And because the Warriors had done it without Kevin Durant, who was back in the Bay Area receiving treatment on a calf injury that was supposed to have been a game-changing moment in this series. It turned out to be -- just not in the way it first seemed.
It was Winston Churchill who advised never to let a good crisis go to waste. From the huddle the Warriors' players formed Wednesday night when Durant limped up the tunnel, that's exactly what they did. Instead of pouting or crumbling, the Warriors these past few days created a complex moment composed of nostalgia, vindication and appreciation.
It was not sinister. Durant was there both spiritually and virtually. His uniform hung at his traditional locker in the Toyota Center. People were texting him, sending him photos and FaceTiming him.
But without Durant actually playing, the accomplishment magnified. The Warriors hadn't won a series without Durant in three years. They haven't won a title without him since 2015, the version of shoes that Curry took out of storage in a move that was part motivation and part symbolism.
"I wanted to lean into it," Curry said of the shoe choice, a nod to the widespread expectation for him to return to a pre-Durant version of himself.
Those within the locker room will tell you this has been the hardest season of Golden State's five-year run at the top. The combination of mental fatigue, uncertainty and tension drained the fun out of this journey. Maybe some of the players will write about it in their memoirs or, in the modern-day spirit, talk about it in the documentaries their personal media companies produce.
Naturally, the Warriors have allowed themselves to think of a world without Durant next season after he hits free agency. After the pleasantries and talk of families are exhausted, Durant's future has been a leading item of gossip in every corner of the NBA for months now. And it will be into the future.
The Warriors know he's a vital piece of their championship makeup and they badly want him to stay. But, of course, they believe -- especially those core four -- that they can still hunt without him. They all have egos. They've all learned to suppress them for the good of the whole.
But that 2015 title ring remains the most special. You never forget your first.
For this win to come the way it did:
- Iguodala crushed Houston's defensive strategy by nailing five 3-pointers.
- Green approached another triple-double.
- Thompson exploded for a huge 21-point first half.
- Curry had one of the finest 10-minute stretches in his career with 23 fourth-quarter points to close it out.
It all rekindled that old "strength in numbers" flame.
Combined with the Game 5 win when the Warriors overcame Durant's injury thanks to late-game Curry heroics, well, let's just say coach Steve Kerr's postgame moniker of "f---ing giants" was heard throughout the locker room.
As wasChris Paul's name, surrounded by curse words. The Warriors dearly loved this win and they always love beating Paul.
"I'm damn proud of our team, for sure," Curry said. "It's huge."
The coming together despite being depleted -- it's easy to forget Golden State is also down center DeMarcus Cousins, who was expected to be a factor in this series when he joined the team -- only amplified the wound it inflicted on the Rockets.
It wasn't that the Rockets played poorly in losing this series 4-2 --James Harden scored a game-high 35 points despite missing 10 of his first 15 shots, and Paul had his best game of the series with 27 points and six assists. Rather, it was that given an opportunity, the Rockets couldn't play great as a team. There's a chance that shortcoming will gnaw at them for a long time. Combined with last season's miss, it's got the potential to be damaging long term.
When presented the same opportunity, the Warriors did play great, especially in that charmed final quarter in which Curry drilled three 3-pointers and their defense held Houston scoreless for a stretch of nearly four minutes.
"This one is going to leave a mark," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni said.
Fittingly, that's exactly what the Warriors were trying to do.