OAKLAND -- This Western Conference Finals was never going to be a stroll through a warm breeze. The Warriors, generally superior, have too many blemishes. The Rockets have too much firepower and a memory that surely can recall last Oct. 17.
After winning two of the first three games, the Warriors looked ready to deliver a knockdown in Game 4 Tuesday night. They actually registered two, one in the first quarter and another, seemingly more devastating, in the third.
The Rockets got up each time. They came back with a vengeance, putting sharper teeth in their defense and more gusto in their offense and staying with it until they hung a 95-92 loss on the Warriors to even the best-of-seven series at 2-2.
"This game was sort of trench warfare," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "It was just everybody grinding it out."
The Warriors, for the first time, saw the improved Houston defense that was so heralded at the start of the playoffs. It's not that they didn't get open looks. They did. But they were open only after absorbing some physical punishment, and they weren't open very long.
"They fought and scrambled every play," Kerr said. "Their half-court defense is pretty good," conceded Draymond Green.
The Warriors were limited to eight fast-break points. They never could sustain any flow. Stephen Curry was 10-of-26, Kevin Durant 9-of-24 and Klay Thompson 4-of-13. It's exceedingly difficult to win when your best scorers combine to shoot 36.5 percent from the field and your offense gives away 20 points off turnovers.
The Warriors built two 12-point leads in the first quarter, the Rockets wiped them out in the second to take a 53-46 lead into halftime. When the Warriors, behind scorching 17-point third quarter by Curry, led by 10 (80-70) at the end of three, the Rockets came for blood in the fourth.
"You look at how the game went, we were in pretty good shape for 44 minutes with a chance to win and take really control of the series," Curry said. "But it didn't happen."
The Warriors scored all of 12 points in the fourth quarter. They took 18 shots and missed 15. They coughed up four of their 16 turnovers, giving Houston 5 points.
The Houston team that once routinely collapsed under its own weight now expects to clobber you with it. If Harden fades, and he did, scoring six points in 22 minutes after halftime, Paul is there to close it out. And the defense now rises when needed.
When Houston coach Mike D'Antoni said on Monday that the Warriors were facing more pressure in Game 4, he was trying to pacify his team. He was lying.
That lie is now the truth. The Warriors go back to Houston to face a team that is fresh off showcasing its improved defense and, moreover, more confident than it was when this series started and exponentially more confident than it was after taking a 126-85 drubbing in Game 3.
When your reply to a 41-point loss in Game is to wipe out a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit in Game 4 -- on the road, no less -- it feeds steroids to your swagger.
"We've been doing it all year long," Harden said of Houston's resilience. "That's the main reason we're in this position we're in today. (Game 3) was just one loss. We all know what that is. We've got the mentality that we were going to win Game 4. We've talked about it. We've preached it."
"And we came out and then stopped. They made runs and they were going to especially at home, and we kept fighting, kept fighting, and defensively kept locking in and making big time shots."
The Rockets came into Oracle Arena on opening night, last Oct. 17, and after trailing by 13 entering the fourth quarter toughed out a 122-121 victory. After wiping out double-digit deficits twice in Oakland to defeat the defending champs, they believe.
That's what the Warriors now have to face. The New Rockets are different. They can summon a fearsome defense. And they don't seem inclined to hurt themselves.
|Warriors 119, Rockets 106
|Rockets 127, Warriors 105
|Warriors 126, Rockets 85
|Rockets 95, Warriors 92
|Houston -- Thursday, May 24th at 6pm
|Oakland -- Saturday, May 26th at 6pm
|Houston -- Monday, May 28th at 6pm