As well as the Warriors played in Game 3, the Rockets played even better in the first quarter of Game 4. Besides James Harden, the Rockets starters are all inconsistent offensive performers. But in the first quarter the Rockets went 17-21, 8-9 from three. James Harden scored “only” 10 of the Rockets’s 45 points, as Josh Smith, Jason Terry, Pablo Prigioni, and the rest of the Rockets shot incredibly well. That hot start held up for a 128-115 victory.
A team doesn’t shoot 80 percent against a locked-in defense, of course. It is a lame, unsatisfying explanation, but it simply looked like the Warriors didn’t put much effort into it. Andrew Bogut moved so slowly it seemed like he was dragging an anvil behind him, and the Warriors wings left people wide open behind the three-point line multiple times. It was perplexing.
After the first quarter the game tilted in the Warriors’s favor, but not far enough for them to win. As the rest of the Rockets ceased hitting every shot, James Harden took the game over. The Rockets “only” scored 83 points over the final three quarters, and Harden was there to bail them out every time they needed him. Harden finished with 45 points, hitting seven threes and getting to the line 13 times.
The Rockets did need to be bailed out. For as well as they played in the first quarter, their own defense was pretty atrocious. The final margin of victory was 13, but the entire second half saw the Warriors cutting their lead to single digits multiple times. Their last, best, chance came with eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, down 104-98. But Leandro Barbosa’s three rimmed out, and the Rockets ripped off a quick run to push the game back out of reach.
There were two key, weird moments in the game, and neither ended in the Warriors favor. The biggest was a possible (probable?) concussion suffered by Stephen Curry when he went down hard after attempting to block Trevor Ariza’s shot in the second quarter. But Curry came back into the game with six minutes left in the third quarter, and never left. He airballed his first shot and had his second blocked, looking pretty, uh, foggy, but afterwards made a number of assists and threes.
Officially, Curry suffered a “head contusion,” and passed the NBA’s pretty toothless concussion policy. After the game the Warriors were adamant that Curry did not suffer a concussion, but most of the 45 hours until Wednesday’s Game 5 will be filled with discussion about how Curry felt, the role of the Warriors’s doctors, the NBA’s concussion policy, whether independent doctors should be involved when concussions are suspected, whether Curry should’ve stayed in the game so long, etc.
The other strange moment was the elbow Dwight Howard threw at Andrew Bogut, angry at an uncalled foul:
After review, the elbow was only ruled a flagrant 1, meaning two free throws (which Bogut missed) and the ball, and Howard stayed in the game. It was strange, as Al Horford was ejected from the Eastern Conference Finals last night for throwing an elbow. The two situations weren’t identical, but they do illustrate the inconsistency (that people have been talking about for years) in what constitutes a flagrant 1, and what constitutes a flagrant 2. The NBA will review the play, and if they retroactively upgrade it to a flagrant 2, it would see Howard suspended for Game 5.
A Rockets win wasn’t unexpected, but the manner in which they won was. The Warriors had the best defense in the league this season, and held the Rockets to just 80 points two days ago. Particularly, the Warriors have done a very good job running the Rockets off of the three-point line. To all of a sudden give up 128—a season high—and let the Rockets go 17-32 from the three-point line was unexpected.
Harden and Howard were pretty stoic after their big victory, and no wonder, as the basic math still looks grim for them. To win this series they’ll have to become the first team in NBA history to come back from a 0-3 hole, and will have to beat the Warriors twice at Oracle Arena, where they are 45-3 this season. It is morbid and unsporting to wish for, but their best chance is that Curry suffers concussion symptoms and misses a game or two. If so, all bets are off.