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2018 NBA Playoffs

The reigning champs are headed back to the Finals

But say hello to the NBA’s newest rivalry: Warriors versus Rockets

HOUSTON — The newly crowned 2018 NBA Western Conference champions returned via private jet to Oakland, California, in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Next up for the Golden State Warriors? A fourth straight championship series against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2018 NBA Finals. After taking some much-needed time to celebrate the draining and hard-fought series against the Houston Rockets, Warriors forward Draymond Green didn’t even want to think about the upcoming Finals while he was up in the air.

“We’ve gone through so much adversity that this one feels incredible,” Green told The Undefeated. “We know what is to come. We’ve been there before. We know how tough this is going to be. But we’re going to appreciate it now, and when the plane lands, we move on. But right now, we’re going to appreciate this one.”

The reigning NBA champion Warriors defeated the Rockets 101-92 in a deciding Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals on Monday night. Golden State overcame a 3-2 series deficit to win the West with two straight do-or-die, pressure-filled triumphs. The Warriors were also without key forward Andre Iguodala (leg) during the last four games of this series. Iguodala told The Undefeated that he was “trying” to be ready for Game 1 of the Finals. After leading the Rockets to wins in Games 4 and 5, veteran point guard Chris Paul also missed the last two games because of a hamstring injury.

The Rockets were understandably emotional after losing just one game shy of the NBA Finals, with Trevor Ariza, Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker in tears. Apparently, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni told Warriors All-Star forward Kevin Durant during Game 7 that his team would have won the series if Paul played. But an argument can also be made that the Warriors could’ve won in five games if their veteran leader Andrew Iguodala was playing, as well.

Say hello to the NBA’s newest rivalry: Warriors versus Rockets.

“Games 4 and 5, we gave it to them,” Green said. “We don’t really give things away, ever. But we gave those two games away.”

Said Ariza: “This one hurts really bad.”

Stephen Curry warned beforehand that a slow start in Game 7 could be the death of his Warriors. Well, the Rockets definitely gave Golden State reason to worry, as they went ahead by as many as 15 points in the first half before taking a 54-43 halftime lead. Both teams shot poorly in the first half: under 45 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3-point range.

Say hello to the NBA’s newest rivalry: Warriors versus Rockets.

Rockets All-Star James Harden, Eric Gordon and Capela combined for 44 points in the first half. The Warriors have a reputation as a poor and unfocused first-half team — but also as the NBA’s best third-quarter scoring team. Golden State also didn’t go into a panic at halftime despite the fact that Green said they played “horrible” in perhaps their worst first half of the season.

“We told each other that we were down 11 points and we could score that in two minutes,” Green, who tweaked an ankle in the win, told The Undefeated.

Green was right, as the Warriors outscored Houston 33-15 in the third quarter to hold a 76-69 lead at the end of the frame after nailing seven 3-pointers. The Warriors also played stingy defense, as Houston missed all 14 of its 3-point attempts in the third quarter and eventually an NBA-record 27 straight. Durant scored a game-high 34 points, while Curry added 27 to lead the Warriors to the victory.

Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, members of the Rockets’ 1995 NBA championship team, left with immense respect for the reigning champs.

“The Rockets didn’t make shots. The Warriors can make 3-pointers with their eyes closed,” Drexler told The Undefeated.

Said Olajuwon to The Undefeated: “The Warriors are experienced. A champion’s experience always shows.”

Durant had taken some heat from the media and social media for not playing well offensively in Game 4 and 5 losses. The 2017 NBA Finals MVP sparked the Warriors with his overall play, which included 11 made field goals, five 3-pointers, five rebounds, five assists and three blocks in 44 minutes.

After the buzzer, Durant’s father, Wayne Pratt, screamed not far from the Warriors’ locker room, “They said he wasn’t clutch. They said he was a front-runner. [Scoring] is in his blood.”

Not far from Pratt’s scream were several rows of chairs for the Rockets’ players’ friends and family members in their private postgame section. This crew of Rockets players’ loved ones included Paul’s parents, wife, children and brother-manager, C.J., and sister-in-law. After previously not making it to the West finals in his 13-year NBA career, Chris Paul came one win shy of making his first NBA Finals appearance after suffering the hamstring injury. It was cruel that the nine-time NBA All-Star had to watch it all unfold helplessly from the sideline.

“Chris is sad. He’s a sad puppy dog right now. He was so close. We’ll be back,” C.J. Paul told The Undefeated.

The location of that section could not have been in a worse place after this emotional Game 7. As if they were watching a horror movie, the Rockets family section seats were coincidentally faced toward the Warriors players, coaches, management, team personnel, friends and family members as they paraded by with smiles and shouts of joy after a West title trophy ceremony. They wore NBA Finals 2018 hats and T-shirts that have not been donned in Houston since the mid-1990s.

Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors reacts after defeating the Houston Rockets 101-92 in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals at Toyota Center on May 28 in Houston.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Green screamed in celebration right as he walked by C.J. Paul. Warriors rookie forward Jordan Bell brought the Western Conference trophy over by the in-house security guards, asking if they wanted to touch it. Curry walked by with his West title hat on with his youngest daughter, Ryan, in his arms. In a heartwarming moment, NBA journeyman guard Quinn Cook also walked by in tears — he began the season a two-way contract member and ended it a full-time member of the Warriors on his way to the NBA Finals.

“Being an NBA fan, watching the Finals every year and being a part of this team, I just lost it after we got the trophy,” Cook told The Undefeated. “I was talking to Coach Kerr, and we had a moment. Then me, [Durant] and Steph had a moment. I lost it. I always dreamed of this.”

Once the Warriors’ locker room opened, Durant, Curry and Green were extremely relieved about not being in the series with the pesky Rockets anymore. It was a grueling test of wills in an already long season for the Warriors where they have dealt with their share of drama with injuries and focus in an 82-game regular season plus playoffs. The Rockets forced the Warriors to respect them in the end, and the four-time reigning West champs were glad to bid them farewell.

With all due respect to James and the Cavaliers, the Rockets are projected to be the toughest challenge along the road next season.

“That’s why it felt so good,” Curry told The Undefeated. “It was hard. Everything about it was hard.”

Said Durant: “We have gone through an emotional roller coaster throughout the year. … This feels good. We’ve been through a lot this year as a team.”

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