OAKLAND, May 28- The Golden State Warriors are headed to the NBA finals for the first time in 40 years, eliminating the Houston Rockets on Wednesday to set up a title clash with Cleveland.
The Warriors, the best team in the regular season with 67 victories and 15 defeats, pulled away late to beat the Rockets 104-90 and seal a 4-1 series victory in the best-of-seven Western Conference finals.
They will battle a Cavaliers team led by four-time NBA Most Valuable Player LeBron James, who swept the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Warriors are back in the championship series for the first time since 1975, when they swept the Washington Bullets in four games to win the title.
The Warriors host game one in Oakland on June 4.
“We’re four wins away from the goal,” reigning MVP Stephen Curry told the crowd, his words almost drowned out by the cheering of the Warriors faithful.
Curry, playing with a protective sleeve on his right arm after a frightening fall in game four in which he also hit his head on the court, led the Warriors with 26 points.
Forward Harrison Barnes played a key role, helping Golden State break open a close contest with four straight baskets to cap an 11-2 scoring run that turned a six-point lead into an 87-72 Warriors advantage with 7:07 left to play.
Barnes scored nine straight points on a jump shot, a three-pointer, a running basket and a dunk.
“I was just trying to be aggressive,” said Barnes,” who stepped up after team-mate Klay Thompson left the game with an ear laceration that had to be stitched up.
Thompson scored 20 points before he took a knee in the ear from Rockets forward Trevor Ariza.
“Obviously they were putting a lot of attention on Steph,” Barnes said. “When (Thompson) went down, I was just trying to fill in the pieces.”
Golden State’s rookie coach Steve Kerr, who won five NBA titles as a player, said it was a different feeling to coach a team to the finals.
“It’s maybe even more rewarding because you feel responsible for a lot of people’s welfare,” he said.
As for getting there for the first time in 40 years, Kerr said, “it’s a joy.”
– Harden struggles –
The Warriors defense harried Rockets star guard James Harden into a dismal two-for-11 shooting performance. He missed all three of his three-point attempts and finished with an NBA playoff record 13 turnovers.
Harden, runner-up to Curry in MVP voting, had scored a spectacular 45 points as the Rockets fended off elimination in game four, but was held to just 14 in this one.
Dwight Howard led Houston with 18 points and 16 rebounds, but the Rockets shot just 35.1 percent from the field.
“We were extraordinarily bad at finishing at the rim,” said Rockets coach Kevin McHale.
“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,” McHale said. “Those three things really doomed us.”
Houston had cut the Warriors’ lead to eight points with 4:19 remaining when Barnes hit two free throws and came up with another dunk.
The Rockets couldn’t get the deficit below nine points the rest of the way in an end to a season in which they battled injuries but notched the third-best record in the regular season.
“This isn’t where we wanted to end at,” Harden said. “It’s a really good season for us. Next year we want to be better, and we will.”