The Golden State Warriors got their signature third-quarter run. They had a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter, at home. Everything seemed in place for their 17th consecutive playoff victory in Oakland.
But then the Houston Rockets provided a reminder of why they were the team to beat in the Western Conference this season, with James Harden and Chris Paul fighting their way to an improbable 95-92 victory in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday.
A last-second foul gave the Warriors one final play with 0.5 seconds on the clock and a 3-point deficit, but Stephen Curry, who had a remarkably strong third quarter, was unable to connect on a 3-pointer and the longest home winning streak in postseason history ended.
It was a stunning loss for the Warriors, who seemed to be following the formula that had led to so much of their success over the last four seasons. They let a 12-0 run to start the game, and a 34-17 third quarter, go to waste, and the Rockets beat them with a mix of intensity, execution, and some attitude.
“I think there was great basketball played on both sides, stretches of it,” Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni said after the game. “The rest of it is just gutting it out and finding a will, a way, and a want.”
It was ultimately the discipline of the Rockets, and the Warriors’ lack thereof, that decided the game. Coach Steve Kerr said he saw that disparity coming early on, but he was unable to reverse it.
“We started turning it over and fouling,” he said, “and it was disappointing because I felt like we could have really stretched the lead. But we sent them to the line over and over again in that first half, the second quarter especially.”
After three consecutive blowout wins in this series, two of which were Golden State victories, a competitive Game 4 was a refreshing change. But while the final score may have been close, the game was defined by huge runs, much like the rest of the series.
D’Antoni praised his team’s toughness but didn’t have a solid explanation as to how the Rockets were able to withstand Golden State’s huge scoring bursts.
Curry, who scored 17 of his 28 points in the third quarter, was sitting on the bench as Houston got back into the game with a 9-0 run in the fourth, and he couldn’t rekindle his hot streak once he returned to the game. Kevin Durant finished with 27 points and 12 rebounds, and Green, who will undoubtedly be watching Harden’s dunk on television for the next several days, had 11 points, 14 rebounds and 8 assists.
Golden State’s rotations were hampered without Andre Iguodala, who sustained a bone bruise in his knee in Game 3, but Kevon Looney did a respectable job starting in his place, and the team got solid play out of the rookie Jordan Bell. Despite that, the sight of the Rockets repeatedly punching their way back into the game made the loss of the Warriors’ versatile wing who has played such strong defense against Harden and Paul all series seem like a key element.
The series will now shift back to Houston for Game 5 on Thursday, and while it is tied 2-2, the Rockets, who would play at home in two of the three potential remaining games, may have seized control of their own destiny.