HOUSTON – Down seven entering the fourth quarter, the Warriors saddled up their most imposing thoroughbred, Kevin Durant, and found themselves ahead of the Rockets fewer than two minutes later. It was their first lead since early in the second quarter.
The Warriors bench came alive, Toyota Center went quiet, and Houston coach Mike D'Antoni hastily signaled for his charges to call timeout.
For a moment then, and even throughout the fourth quarter and perhaps into overtime, a thought made its way through the Warriors. They were, thanks to Durant, about to win a game they deserved to lose.
"He was a killer out there and single-handedly gave us the lead," said Warriors guard Stephen Curry, who was watching from the bench as Durant scored 10 points in less than two minutes, on 4-of-4 shooting. "And once you get the lead and start to settle in, the vibe changes."
But when play resumed, the Warriors returned to a more democratic offense, and it backfired just enough for reality to intrude and deliver a deserving 126-121 overtime loss in Game 3 of the NBA playoff second-round series.
Curry reentered and tried to do what he usually does despite two fingers being taped up in the wake of a dislocation sustained in Game 2 on Tuesday. He failed, missing all four of shots in the fourth quarter and the two he took in OT, punctuating his 7-of-23 night by flubbing a breakaway dunk with 19.2 seconds left.
"Over the course of 44 minutes, it wasn't my night," he conceded.
Klay Thompson, who scored six points through three quarters, rallied for 10 in the fourth but was scoreless on one shot in the extra period. Andre Iguodala hit a couple crucial shots in the fourth and drained a triple in OT.
It became clear that if the Warriors were going to find victory despite being outplayed, it would be up to Durant, who found his stroke after scoring 12 points in the first half. He scored 34 over the final 29 minutes to finish with 46. As Houston's offense became even more of a dictatorship behind ball-dominant James Harden in overtime, the Warriors held firm to their principles.
"We had our chances," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "And let's be honest: It would have been a steal if we had won that game. They outplayed us. They outboarded us by 20. They were the more physical, aggressive team right from the beginning.
"We made that run in the fourth quarter based on Kevin's brilliance and I felt like we started competing better at that point."
The Warriors lost because the Rockets, down 2-0 in the best-of-seven series, played with the sheer desperation of a team knowing a loss would have put them on the brink of elimination. They were imperfect, committing 13 turnovers, but they made up for it with blood and sweat and a level of determination that seemed to act as a sixth man.
Houston was on the attack from the opening tip, barging into the paint for layups rather than settling for the usual 25-foot 3-pointers. That got the Rockets a 58-49 lead at the half, after which they exploited open looks from deep. They made six triples in the first half, 12 afterward.
Moreover, the Rockets snagged 55 rebounds, to 35 for the Warriors. They had 17 on the offensive end, to seven for the Warriors. With 15 second- and third-chance shots, Houston scored 18 momentum-sustaining points. Houston outrebounded the Warriors in every quarter and by 5-1 in OT.
These numbers matter, because rebound totals are indicative of determination, and that goes double for rebounding late in a close game.
"We didn't get 50-50 balls down the stretch," said Draymond Green, who was terrific on defense and submitted a triple-double (19 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists). "We gave up a couple offensive rebounds in overtime, and that was really the difference. When you're on the road and trying to win a playoff game, you have to come up with those. That was pretty much the tale of the game."
Could the Warriors have pulled this one out? It was there for them, thanks to Green on the defensive end and Durant on offense.
"KD did some things, individually, that were just off the charts," D'Antoni said.
Durant didn't quite do enough, though, partly because the ball too often found other hands, such as Curry's, that simply didn't have it. That's something the Warriors can mull over as they evaluate this night and prepare for Game 4 on Monday night.