HOUSTON - Since training camp opened more than seven months ago, the Golden State Warriors have been trying to fight against the challenges of becoming the first team in a half-decade to reach five straight NBA Finals.
The process has provided a combination of dominate stretched and curious losses in the regular season, a trend that's extended to the playoffs. Two weeks ago, Golden State finished off a six-game first-round series against the No. 8 seed LA Clippers - a series which they both beat the team by wide margins and surrendered the biggest playoff lead in NBA history at home.
Now, after taking a commanding 2-0 lead over the Rockets in the Western Conference Semifinals, the Warriors have seen Houston even the series 2-2, thanks to a 112-108 Game 4 victory on Monday night. The loss for the Warriors was characterized by inconsistent play, further proving the sentiment of how hard Golden State's road to a third straight title will be.
"I thought we played plenty hard enough," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after Monday's loss. "But I think the force has to be accompanied by the poise and I felt like we were in a rush offensively all night."
For the second consecutive game, Golden State failed to show up in the second quarter, shooting just 45 percent from the field, including 2-of-7 from the 3-point line. James Harden scored 13 of his game-high 38 points in the quarter, as Golden State was outscored 36-26 over the 12-minute stretch, giving the Rockets a 61-54 halftime lead.
Adding to Golden State's problems, they shot just 8 of 33 from beyond the arc. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson finished a combined 5 of 20 from 3-point range. Still, the Warriors erased a 17-point second half lead, using a 9-1 run to get within three points with 11 seconds to go before Kevin Durant and Curry missed open 3-pointers in the final seconds.
"They were solid looks considering the situation - down three with a chance to tie it up," Curry said. "They didn't go our way. I liked the fight that we had and it comes down to that possession, but over the course of the game, there were a lot of things that we can do on both ends of the floor."
Golden State's problems extended to the glass, where Houston held a 50-43 rebounding, including a game-high 10 from Harden and five offensive rebounds from Rockets forward PJ Tucker.
"We didn't match their physicality until the last four minutes of the game," Draymond Green said. "It's been that way for about the last 96 minutes of the series, so we have to correct that."
This season, the Warriors have been consistently inconsistent. For each 10-1 stretch, there's been a curious 7-7 string of games to follow. In the first round, after beating the Clippers by more than 20 points in Game 1, they squandered 31-point lead at home in Game 2. All the while, the Rockets had been waiting, admittingly obsessed with beating the champs as they did Monday evening.
Nearly a year ago, following a 98-94 Game 4 home loss to the Rockets that sent the Western Conference Finals series back to Houston tied 2-2, the Warriors found themselves in peril. Andre Iguodala injured his knee and the reeling Warriors saw their tightly gripped title hopes starting to slip away.
A year later under similar circumstances, the Warriors say there's calm over the team.
"There was so many questions to be answered," Green said. "Those questions aren't there this year, we know the answer to our problems and that's pretty exciting."
With that in mind, Golden State will look to find the consistency that's eluded them all year.
"This is what it's about," Kerr added. "This is the NBA playoffs, the best teams in the league and we're playing a great team and we know what the gameplan is and we know how good they are. So it's just about competition, that's it."