May 23, 2018, 12:41 am
The Western Conference Finals, believe it or not, have become a best of three. The Houston Rockets beat the Golden State Warriors 94-92 on Tuesday night, giving the defending champions their first postseason loss at Oracle Arena in nearly two years, and sending this series back to Toyota Center all square at two games apiece.
Chris Paul, struggling before Game 4, was the hero for Houston. The numbers, 27 points and four assists on 10-of-20 shooting and 5-of-9 from beyond the arc, don’t come close to doing the future Hall-of-Famer’s performance justice. He set a gritty, combative tone from the opening tip, exchanging words with Draymond Green on multiple occasions and refusing to back down against bigger competition on either end of the floor. James Harden actually led Houston with 30 points, 24 of which came in the first half to help rescue his team from an early hole. Eric Gordon was the only other Rocket to score in double-figures, fighting his way to 14 points on as many shot attempts.
It was a team effort for the Rockets down the stretch, one marked by defense more than anything else. After Steph Curry (28 points, 10-of-26 FGs, 5-of-13 3PTs) erupted for 17 points and four 3-pointers to turn the Warriors’ seven-point halftime deficit into a 10-point lead entering the final stanza, Houston absolutely suffocated the home team. Golden State scored just 12 points, managed one assist, committed four turnovers and missed all six of their 3-point attempts in the fourth quarter. Curry went 1-of-8, Kevin Durant (27 points, 12 rebounds, 9-of-24 FGs) went 1-of-5, including a couple of ugly forced jumpers, and Klay Thompson (10 points, 4-of-13 FGs) was scoreless. Houston was hardly themselves offensively, either, but followed the lead of Paul, who had eight points, two rebounds and two assists during the game’s deciding stretch, when no player other than him had more than a single field goal.
“I felt like in the fourth quarter, we just ran out of gas,” said Steve Kerr, whose team played without Andre Iguodala, nursing a bruised left knee.
This outcome seemed impossible after the game’s opening minutes. The Warriors jumped out to a 12-0 lead at the seven-minute mark of the first quarter, forcing Harden and Paul into difficult shots while swarming the paint with well-timed rotations and active arms. But Houston was the better team from that point forward, using a 28-12 run, spearheaded by Harden on both ends of the floor, over the final seven minutes of the second quarter to take a 54-46 lead into intermission. Another highlight-reel third-quarter scoring binge from Curry, which included three straight triples, seemed to signal the big-picture result that so many basketball followers thought they knew was coming before this series began. But the Rockets, playing a seven-man rotation with Luc Mbah a Moute marginalized, reached deep within to find the energy and engagement that proved all too fleeting for Golden State.
Talent helps too, of course. Paul pushed over and over in transition, and attacked early in the shot clock once the Warriors’ surprisingly lackadaisical defense was set. Gordon continuously found his way to the paint, creating easy looks for teammates and initiating quick-hitting ball movement that kept Golden State on its toes. P.J. Tucker bullied his way to seven rebounds in the fourth quarter alone, including two on the offensive glass.
Trevor Ariza, hounding Durant and Curry all night, brought Houston all the way back from a second separate double-digit deficit off this pinpoint, side-winding bounce pass from Paul with just more than six minutes remaining.
Still, the Rockets never quite got the separation they had so many chances to create. Gordon’s 3-pointer with 2:27 left on the clock, which made the score 94-89 and was wide open after a miscommunication by Green and Kevon Looney following a ball screen for Harden, was their last field goal. Just more than a minute later, both Thompson and Curry misfired from three on the same possession. Following a disjointed Golden State possession that ended in an airball by Thompson, Paul could have put the Warriors away for good at the free throw line with .5 seconds remaining. He missed the first, though, and, confusingly, opted to make the second with his team leading by two, allowing Kerr to call the timeout he avoided on the previous possession.
Curry, incredibly, got a game-tying look from the corner as time expired. The basketball gods were shining on Houston, though, as the ball clanked off the rim and evened a suddenly-epic series at 2-2.
Curry had a shot 😢 pic.twitter.com/y2UYkmFALa
— Warriors on NBCS (@NBCSWarriors) May 23, 2018
“Fun game,” Paul said, and the next three might very well decide the championship. Luckily for the Rockets, two of them will be played in Houston.