Rockets vs. Warriors: As Houston rescues season, Game 4 revives playoff drama missing in Western finals

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Finally, NBA fans got the Western Conference finals game we deserved.

Since the moment Chris Paul went from the Los Angeles Clippers to the Houston Rockets last offseason, NBA fans salivated at the possibility of this Rockets team facing the dynasty that is the Golden State Warriors for the right to a trip to the Finals. In the regular season, the prospect of a May matchup between these two high-powered offenses became even more enticing, as the Rockets bettered the Warriors in the regular season with a league-high 65 wins.

Then the most anticipated playoff series finally arrived, and … well, and it fell flat on its face.

A 13-point Golden State win in a Game 1 that didn't really feel that close. A 22-point Houston win in Game 2, which was followed by a 41-point Golden State beatdown in Game 3. Blowout, blowout, blowout. The most anticipated playoff series in a long, long time became, quite simply, painfully boring and utterly lacking drama.

Game 4 on Tuesday night corrected all that, as the Rockets regained home-court advantage with a 95-92 win that ended the Warriors NBA-record home playoff winning streak at 16.

After the game, Steve Kerr called it "trench warfare." But that wasn't quite right, because trench warfare is monotonous and this game was anything but. This was a back-and-forth heavyweight fight, where haymakers were countered with haymakers. The Warriors threw the first one, a 12-0 barrage to start Game 4 (or, more appropriately, a 12-0 barrage that continued their Game 3 blowout). A jumper by Klay Thompson, a three from Stephen Curry, a couple lay-ins from Kevon Looney and Draymond Green, a Kevin Durant splash from three-point land and bam -- a Rockets timeout less than five minutes into the game. But even in that Golden State run came hints of the physical Rockets defense that would keep the Warriors' explosive offense under 100 points for only the third time these playoffs.

"Even when we're down 12-zip, there was some good defense in there to get us back, because it wasn't like we were lighting it up to get back," said Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni.

The Rockets got stops and rebounds. They dove for loose balls and played physical defense without fouling. Harden went off for 24 points in that first half, perhaps his best half as a Rocket and certainly his most important. With a little over three minutes left in the half, Chris Paul hit a three, and then he made a free throw, and all of the sudden Houston was tied. Meanwhile, the Warriors went cold in that second quarter, shooting only 28 percent from the field and making only 1 of 6 threes. By halftime, the game had fully swung the other way, with the Rockets leading, 53-46.

Then came the third quarter, and you know how the Warriors are in third quarters. It's the most lethal quarter for any team in the NBA; the Warriors averaged 30 points per third quarter this season, more than any NBA team averaged in any quarter. In this third quarter, they scored 34 points. Curry spontaneously combusted, making 5 of 8 threes, but this was no one-man show. This was Golden State playing its typically beautiful basketball. Thompson made a three. Durant tossed in three buckets. Green assisted on five of the Warriors' 13 made shots. Twelve basketball minutes after halftime and the Warriors were up 10. This game seemed to be going the way we expected it would be headed: Another home game the Warriors won handily, a 3-1 series lead that felt insurmountable, one more step toward another inevitable title.

Until the Rockets stepped in their way.

"This is the highest level we've ever played defensively, without a doubt," D'Antoni said after the game. "Because you're talking about maybe the best offensive team ever, and they got on a roll … It's all about toughness right now. It's going to be spotty both ways. I think there was great basketball played on both sides, stretches of it. The rest of it is just gutting it out and finding a will, a way and a want."

That's what the Rockets did in the fourth quarter. They took a Warriors team that has reinvented offensive basketball the past five years -- a Warriors team that had absolutely set Oracle Arena on fire in that third quarter -- and punched them in the mouth. More accurately, they wrestled them to the ground and choked them out, holding the Warriors to only 12 points in those final 12 minutes.

Meanwhile, the Rockets kept making shots. Not their leading scorer and presumptive MVP; Harden, who was so magnificent in that first half, made only one shot in that fourth quarter, the most important quarter of the Rockets season. Instead, Paul took over with a swagger, scoring eight fourth-quarter points and draining a three. Curry and Durant, the NBA's most talented scoring tandem, couldn't buy a shot in that final frame, going a combined 2 of 13 from the field in the fourth, and jacking up some questionable-at-best looks (especially Durant).

There was another thing going on in the Rockets' fourth-quarter dominance, too. Depth has never been a strength of these Warriors, and by that fourth quarter, they were tired. There were two places where the injured Andre Iguodala's absence really hurt the Warriors: In the second quarter, when Golden State needed a defensive stopper, and in the fourth, when all the extra minutes other Warriors had to play just caught up to them. This wasn't an example of complacency being the Warriors' greatest opponent. On Tuesday night, the Rockets were just the better team.

"In the fourth quarter we just ran out of gas," Kerr said. "This game was sort of trench warfare. It was just everybody grinding it out, lot of isolation."

"I like the fight that we showed," Curry said. "Fatigue is not an excuse for either side."

And so we return to Houston with a renewed sense that this much-anticipated series won't be blowout followed by blowout followed by blowout. A seven-game series has now become a three-game series, and the underdog challenger has two of those games at home. Things have gotten quite interesting again in the Western Conference finals.

"It's just going to be that much sweeter for us to go down there and get one," said the Warriors' Shaun Livingston, a brash postgame prediction that sounded like a too-confident prizefighter. "I like our chances … We have to bring the force more next game."

As for the Rockets, the celebration lasted only until they left the locker room.

"It was a huge win, but it means nothing now going back," Trevor Ariza said. "It's going to be a new game."

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