After a Game 3 blowout that stands as the most lopsided loss in franchise playoff history, the Houston Rockets had their backs against the wall, facing the prospect of a 3-1 deficit if they couldn’t get their act together for Tuesday’s Game 4. But James Harden, Chris Paul and company aren’t dead yet.
James Harden scored 24 of his 30 points in the first half, including a pair of exceptionally memorable ones, to carry the Rockets out of an early hole. Chris Paul scored 13 of his 27 in the second half to help not just withstand a furious Golden State push, but push back even harder.
Eric Gordon shook off an ice-cold long-range shooting performance to hit a huge 3-pointer with 2:27 to go in the fourth quarter. And after weathering the Warriors’ trademark Stephen Curry-led third-quarter flurry, Houston limited Golden State to just 12 points in the final frame and watched a last-gasp Curry 3-point try come up empty to hold on for a 95-92 win in Game 4 in the closest, most hotly contested and most thrilling game of the third round of the 2018 NBA playoffs.
With their often-beleaguered superstar backcourt leading the way, the Rockets scrapped and clawed to earn their first-ever playoff win on the road in the Bay Area. After losing Game 1 on their home court, they have now knotted the Western Conference finals up at 2-2 and wrested back home-court advantage. They can draw within one win of the franchise’s first NBA Finals appearance since 1995 with a victory in Game 5 at Toyota Center on Thursday.
A matchup between the NBA’s two best offenses turned on the defensive end, as Houston and Golden State — who ranked sixth and ninth in defensive efficiency during the regular season, respectively — wreaked havoc on one another with physicality, length, athleticism and aggression. The Warriors shot just 35-for-89 (39.3 percent) from the field, while the Rockets went only 30-for-77 (39 percent). And in a game that would prove to be a war of attrition, as both Mike D’Antoni and Steve Kerr cut their rotations to the bone, it was the Rockets that had enough in the tank in the late stages — if only barely — to get over the finish line.
Houston went just seven-deep on Tuesday, with D’Antoni demanding a lot out of his top guns and getting 12 crucially decent minutes (mostly, surprisingly, on the defensive end) from wild-card wing Gerald Green. The Warriors, on the other hand, sorely missed the injured Andre Iguodala’s defensive versatility and steady playmaking hand on a night when Draymond Green logged 45-plus minutes, Kevin Durant played 43, and Curry and Klay Thompson both got 39, and on which Nick Young was a -14 in 12 1/2 minutes and the typically dependable Shaun Livingston was a -15 in 15 1/2 minutes.
Curry led four Warriors in double figures with 28 points and a 6-for-13 mark from 3-point range, and once again ignited a big Warriors run by scoring 11 points in 96 seconds midway through a third quarter that saw Golden State turn a seven-point deficit into a 10-point lead:
Durant added 27 (albeit on 10-for-26 shooting) with 12 rebounds, while Green came up two assists shy of a triple-double, scoring 11 points with 13 rebounds, eight assists, two steals and a block.
But after racing out to a 12-0 lead, holding Houston scoreless for the first five minutes and 18 seconds of the game, Golden State couldn’t put the hammer down. They allowed Harden and later Paul to get into scoring and playmaking rhythm, which came back to haunt the Warriors when they ran out of gas down the stretch.
The Rockets erased their early deficit with a dominant second quarter in which their dynamic backcourt duo outscored the Warriors’ entire team 29-18. Houston did the bulk of that damage after Curry picked up his third personal foul and Kerr put him on the bench with 5:06 to go in the first half. That limited Golden State’s offense, which Houston kept pushing and forcing out of its comfort zone, setting the stage for the Rockets to go on a 19-8 run to close the half and head into intermission with a 53-46 lead, thanks in part to some good, opportunistic defensive plays by Harden (no, that’s not a typo):
The Warriors’ season-long problems with ball security (16 turnovers leading to 20 Rockets points) and foul woes (Houston went 23-for-27 at the free-throw line) reared their ugly heads again, helping Houston withstand Golden State’s fast start and torrid third quarter to stay in position to put together a monster run late. Between the 10:45 mark of the fourth quarter and Gordon’s big 3 with just under 2 1/2 minutes to go, the Rockets outscored the Warriors 24-7. They created good looks out of the pick-and-roll, disrupted Golden State’s off-ball cutting and screening actions, dominated the glass and completely changed the tenor of the game, leaving the defending champs flailing on their home court in the postseason in a way we haven’t seen since Game 7, 2016.
Playing in a must-win game in the first conference final of his Hall of Fame career, and on a balky left foot that’s been bothering him all series, Paul delivered in spades. He made 10 of his 20 field goal attempts, including a 5-for-9 mark from 3-point land, to go with four assists, two rebounds and a steal in 41 1/2 minutes. He scored eight in the deciding fourth quarter and assisted on six more — an insane corner-to-corner, cross-court curveball along the baseline for a 3-pointer by Trevor Ariza that gave Houston an 85-84 lead with 6:03 to go …
… and a pitch-back in the pick-and-roll for what would wind up being the game-winner by Gordon, which put the Rockets up 94-89 with 2:27 left:
— NBA (@NBA) May 23, 2018
While Paul carried the load for the Rockets late, the Warriors — gassed after an explosive third quarter during which Curry, Durant, Green and Thompson all played the full 12 minutes — just could not muster enough makes to stem Houston’s rising tide.
Golden State managed just 12 points in the deciding period, tying a franchise-low for any postseason quarter since the advent of the shot clock. The Warriors went 3-for-18 from the field, with several misses on good looks that they’ll wish they could get back. Kerr’s club missed six 3-pointers, including two with just over a minute left — one by Thompson, who scarcely looked like himself after suffering a left knee strain early in the second quarter, and one by Curry — that could’ve tied the game at 94.
The Warriors went 3-18 from the field in the 4th quarter (16.7%), their worst shooting quarter this season. pic.twitter.com/DvUZVUDcwA
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) May 23, 2018
Even after their disastrous offensive quarter, the Warriors did still have a chance to tie in the final half-minute, when Green rebounded a missed step-back 3 by Harden with 15 seconds to go. Golden State pushed, with Kerr electing not to call a timeout so his struggling team could attack an unsettled Rockets defense … before things fell apart:
Durant handled across half-court, but pulled up when P.J. Tucker stopped the ball at foul-line extended, and passed to Thompson in the left corner along the baseline. He was bottled up by Ariza, and tried dribbling out of trouble, but drove into a double-team by Harden before stopping, pivoting and lofting up a fadeaway jumper that never touched the rim.
The ball fell into Paul’s hands, seemingly a fitting ending for the game … except that the refs whistled Livingston for a foul, sending Paul to the free-throw line with 0.5 seconds left on the game clock.
Paul missed the first, leaving the door open to the Warriors getting one last look for a tie or the win … unless, of course, he intentionally missed to try to run off that last half-second. Instead, he made it, giving the Rockets a three-point lead and allowing Kerr to take Golden State’s final timeout — the one he’d later say he wanted, and Green tried to call, when Klay got trapped — to draw up one more play. He got what he wanted: an open look for Curry in the corner. But Steph couldn’t get the shot off in time.
Now, it’s a best-of-three. Now, the Rockets know that they can take the Warriors’ best shot, come right back and respond in kind, even at Oracle. Now, they know Harden and Paul can generate enough buckets, and an Ariza-and-Tucker-led small-ball defense can string together enough stops, to make Golden State shake. Now, the Warriors know they’ll enter Game 5 dealing with leg injuries to two of their five best players, and that they’ll be playing a sixth game in a postseason series for the first time since Durant decided to head west.
The Warriors are now in uncharted territory, because the Rockets pushed them there. We’ll find out on Thursday just how much further these two teams can push one another.
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