The Warriors threw every knockout punch they had in their arsenal. A tenacious defense that held the Rockets scoreless for the first five minutes, the usual third quarter explosion, and Stephen Curry once again going nuclear from deep.
But the Rockets absorbed every shot to the face like Rocky Balboa, and emerged from Oracle with a 95-92 win Tuesday and a tied series going back to Houston.
It looked like this one was going to be over early, as the Rockets couldn’t get any decent look at the basket to start the game. The Rockets actually made a substitution before scoring a point.
And their first basket came courtesy of a lazy Curry pass, after which Steve Kerr immediately called timeout. It was a joke that Kerr was disgusted at the Warriors for letting this team score any points. But in retrospect the timeout seemed almost necessary as from that point on the Warriors didn’t show nearly the same amount of pressure or poise.
Though they were up 12-2, the Warriors never put the hammer down, and that was a key point in the game, Kerr said:
“I just felt like early in the game we had a chance to really make some hay, and I think it was 12-0. We started turning it over and fouling, and it was disappointing because I felt like we could have really stretched the lead. But we sent them to the line over and over again in that first half, the second quarter especially….I thought that allowed them to hang around. Then they got their confidence, made a lot of free throws, got the lead at halftime, and then it was a slog from there.”
Curry added 28 points with six 3’s, but it wasn’t enough to push the Warriors past the Rockets. Curry was the only Warrior to shoot the ball well, and the offense as a whole wilted the deeper they got into the game. They scored just 12 points in the fourth, their fewest points in a playoff quarter in the shot clock era, as all their legs looked tired.
Draymond Green, who played 45 minutes, got hung up on a dunk attempt and Curry missed a wide open in the final minute. They shot just 3-of-18 for the quarter and failed to get anything easy after having their way with the Rockets in the third.
Kerr said fatigue manifested itself in crucial parts of the fourth quarter:
“I thought we made that great push in the third, but we weren’t really able to make many subs. We were going well, so we didn’t want to disrupt our rhythm. But our normal sub patterns obviously was skewed anyway with Andre’s absence. But I felt like in the fourth quarter we just ran out of gas.”
After fouling just three times during the first quarter, the Warriors started reaching and committed nine fouls for 11 Rockets free throws in the second, undoing all the defensive work they did in the first.
The fouls led directly to the choppiest of rhythms, which plays right into the Rockets’ hands. Houston wants to slow it down and kill any flow, and when that happens, the Warriors get impatient and start forcing iso’s like they are wearing a red jersey.
Golden State finished with just 14 assists, nowhere close to the 29 they averaged during the regular season when the ball was hopping around. The 14 assists were their fewest total in a playoff game since 2007.
Curry said the Rockets are trying to stop the ball movement, but they have to find a way to counter it:
“I think some of the mix-ups we had on defense affected our energy on the offensive end. I mean, credit to them, we know they’re doing a lot of switching and trying to force us into one-on-one type situations, but that’s no excuse to not get the ball moving. Trusting what we do best, and whether it’s the first quarter, second quarter or crunch time in the fourth, we’ve got to be us, and that’s going to be the adjustment for Game 5.”
Kevin Durant settled for a good portion of his 24 shots, with just six coming from in the paint. He finished with 27 points on an inefficient 9-of-24. It wasn’t just that he settled, it was that the act of settling causes the team to stand around waiting for him to make his move, which takes the Warriors out of their motion-based offense.
The Rockets were content to leave Durant in single coverage and overplay every other player on the court. For a team that’s the butt of a lot of defensive jokes, the Rockets executed their plan on that end of the court beautifully. The Warriors want to use backcuts and downscreens to make the Rockets chase them where they can attack. But the Rockets have straight up denied all off-ball action, forcing one Warrior to hold the ball forever and then make them attack as an iso.
Green said the scoring trouble is as much a defensive problem as an offensive one:
“We were really just guns blazing in the third quarter, getting stops, pushing the tempo. Starting the fourth quarter, we didn’t get stops. It’s a little harder to push the tempo when you’re not getting stops. You’re playing against a set defense every time. Their half-court defense is pretty good. We just got to make sure we continue to lock in on defense.”
Andre Iguodala wasn’t able to suit up after he banged knees with James Harden midway through the fourth quarter in Game 3. What the team is calling a left lateral leg contusion may cause him to miss more than one game. Steve Kerr said if he was close, then he would be playing, implying that the do-it-all swingman isn’t anywhere near recovered.
They could have used Iguodala’s calming influence, as the team looked frazzled most of the game. Klay Thompson had to leave in the second quarter and didn’t look right when he came back. He airballed two shots and got hit in the face with the ball because he wasn’t paying attention, and also committed a gang of thoughtless turnovers.
He topped off his game by throwing up a fadeaway prayer that was nowhere near the basket on a possession the Warriors could have tied the game with just a few seconds remaining.
Even with all that, the Warriors had a chance to tie the game on the last shot. But Curry missed a spinning corner 3, which looked like it may have not counted even had it fallen.
Three quarters into Game 4, this series looked done. Now, it heads back to Houston tied 2-2. And gets interesting.
Both teams have just one day of rest and travel before taking the court in Houston Thursday evening, where the Warriors look to regain home court advantage.
Houston has been downright appalling at Oracle in the playoffs, not just this year, but all-time. Before Game 4, they were 0-7 in the postseason franchise history in Oakland. They hadn’t even led for a single second in the fourth quarter during those games. Their first fourth quarter lead came with six minutes to go Tuesday.