• The defending champs are officially on the ropes. The Houston Rockets beat the Golden State Warriors 98-94 at Toyota Center on Thursday night, taking a stunning 3-2 lead as the Western Conference Finals shift back to Oakland with the season on the line.

    Houston’s victory is even more impressive than it appears on the surface, and perhaps even more so than the one it got 48 hours earlier, given the struggles of James Harden and Chris Paul. Harden scored just 19 points and had more turnovers than assists, shooting 5-of-21 from the field and missing all 11 of his attempts from beyond the arc. Paul didn’t have a field goal in the first half, but finished with 20 points on 6-of-19 shooting and 4-of-9 from beyond the arc. He also had seven rebounds, six assists, three steals and no turnovers, an especially notable feat in a game marred by errors from both teams. Eric Gordon led the Rockets with 24 points, coming up huge in another epic fourth quarter marked more by grit and hustle than offensive heroics.

    The Rockets shot 37.2 percent overall, and connected on just 13-of-43 from long range. They had 12 assists and two fast break points, paltry numbers owed as much to Golden State’s defense as the labors of Harden, Paul and spot-up shooters. None of it mattered in the end. Houston, for a second straight game, defended the Warriors better than anyone thought possible.

    Kevin Durant scored a game-high 29 points, but shot just 8-of-22 and didn’t notch an assist, frustrated by the Rockets’ perfectly-timed help defense. Klay Thompson, shaking off a leg injury sustained on Tuesday, was excellent on both ends, making Harden’s life hard while netting 23 points on 14 shots. Steph Curry had 22 points, seven rebounds, six assists and four steals, putting up a respectable fight defensively but never finding a consistent rhythm on the other end. Draymond Green stuffed the stat sheet with 12 points, 15 rebounds and four assists. Golden State’s stars had 15 turnovers between them, though, six of which were owed to Green – including a fumble in the open floor as the Warriors tried to tie the game in its waning moments.

    Unlike Game 4, this one was close from the beginning. After Houston jumped out to a 6-0 lead by virtue of sloppy Warriors turnovers, the first half was ultimately played to a 55-55 draw despite Harden and Paul failing to produce offensively. The latter came out like gangbusters after intermission, though, draining three triples in the first five minutes of the third quarter and taking control of the Rockets’ offense.

    After his final three of the third quarter, right over the top of Curry, Paul gave his longtime rival a taste of his own celebratory medicine.

    https://twitter.com/HoustonRockets/status/999840402353082368

    Paul’s third-quarter scoring binge hardly put Golden State away. On the contrary, it was Houston, with Harden invisible, that needed every point it could muster to keep up. The Warriors had a one-point advantage entering the fourth quarter, but it quickly became apparent the late-game struggles they endured on Tuesday hadn’t entirely gone away.

    Golden State shot 7-of-17 from the field and 3-of-8 from three in the fourth quarter, respectable numbers against an elite defense – one specifically designed to beat them. But when it mattered most in crunch time, the Warriors routinely devolved into isolations and post-ups that the Rockets were mostly able to thwart with strong individual defense and textbook help elsewhere. Durant missed all four of his shots in the fourth quarter, bothered by the physicality of Gordon, often switched onto him, and the activity of Houston’s help.

    Good things happened on Thursday night when Golden State moved the ball and got into its offense quickly. But again without Andre Iguodala, still nursing a left leg injury, the Warriors sorely lack the sense of calm and comfort needed to consistently find cracks in an ironclad defense like the Rockets’.

    “I feel great about where we are right now,” Steve Kerr said after the game. “That may sound crazy, but I feel it.”

    Golden State definitely has ample reason for confidence. Iguodala should be back by Saturday’s game, and the Warriors were better offensively than they were in Game 4 despite another loss and pedestrian box-score numbers. Clean up some errors, and the reigning champions should come away victorious at Oracle Arena. There’s Paul’s health to consider, too, after he injured his hamstring in the final seconds and was forced to watch the finish from the bench.

    It’s not over, basically. But after the Rockets out-gritted them to come within a game of the NBA Finals, it’s also officially time for the Warriors to worry. Let’s see how they play under pressure on Saturday.

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