It wasn’t pretty—it hasn’t been pretty, no two-minute stretch of this series has been the least bit aesthetically pleasant—but the Houston Rockets outlasted the Golden State Warriors in Game 4 to knot their conference semifinal series at two games apiece.
James Harden was once again spectacular, dropping in 38 points in 40 minutes, but the real hero of Game 4 for Houston was old man P.J. Tucker, who led all Rockets with 42 minutes, and played his usual stout defense across every position. Tucker scored 17 points on 12 shots, but it was his energy that seemed to unnerve the Warriors.
Nowhere was this felt more than on the offensive glass, where Tucker ripped down five offensive rebounds, including three in the fourth quarter, of which he played every second. The Warriors spent the frame furiously chipping away at a 17-point Houston lead, but every time they got within striking distance, Tucker seemed to will his Rockets to a couple extra possessions by contesting rebounds. Even when he wasn’t coming down with the ball, the effort accrued to his team’s benefit:
Tucker finished with his fifth career playoff double-double, and his second of this series. Houston’s lead was sustained and expanded through the first three quarters in large part by their role players just running circles around their Warriors counterparts. This was yet another playoff game where the Warriors seemed lethargic and disconnected, like they were waiting for someone to flip a switch. Meanwhile, Tucker and Eric Gordon and even Austin Rivers and Iman Shumpert were darting around and making sharp weak-side cuts and fighting for loose balls and hitting the glass. All that hustling seemed to fluster and discombobulate the Warriors. Once upon a time the Warriors had a magical way of turning an opponent’s defensive intensity to their favor, by punishing overzealous closeouts and too-eager hedges and ball pressure at 35 feet with cuts and pump-fakes and extra passes. Now their solution is too often just dumping the ball to Kevin Durant at the elbow and hoping he can bake someone in the midrange. Monday night the Rockets stepped up the intensity across the board, and for large chunks of the game the Warriors seemed spooked and irritated by it.
And an increasing problem for the Warriors is the rotten shooting numbers of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Steph improved on his horrendous Game 3 performance, but not by much—he put up 30 points on respectable 12-of-25 shooting, but hit just 4-of-14 from beyond the arc, and is now 12-of-46 from three in the series, a very un-Curry-like 26 percent clip. Klay’s ugly 8-of-26 mark from deep in the series is better by percentage, but the fact that he’s only gotten up 26 threes across four games is cause for concern. Kevin Durant has been excellent in the series, but the Warriors aren’t the Warriors if these damn Splash Brothers aren’t burning someone’s house down.
It feels like the momentum has fully shifted Houston’s way, but it’s important to note that the Warriors still have home-court advantage going forward, and the Rockets narrowly won their two home games, and needed some wildly uncharacteristic offensive performances from a couple of the greatest shooters in NBA history to get to where they are today. And even with Tucker’s heroics and Harden’s brilliance and the collective dud of every Warrior not named Kevin Durant—Andre Iguodala scored 7 points on nine shots and was minus-17, pretty much defanging the Hamptons Five death lineup all by himself—the Warriors were still in a great position to tie the game and force overtime. After a clutch Curry three made it a two-point game with 23 seconds left on the clock, Harden missed a freebie, setting the Warriors up with possession and plenty of time for a potential tying shot to force overtime. And they got a great look for just the right guy, followed immediately by a reasonable look for also just the right guy:
For mere mortals those are two exceedingly tough shots. That first shot, though, qualifies as a great look for Durant, and absolutely no one would’ve been surprised to see Curry knock down the second one. But it would’ve been deeply irritating to see the Warriors yet again play sloppy and occasionally disengaged basketball for 40 minutes and then bail themselves out with shot-making in the final minute that under any other circumstances would qualify as insane and spectacular. Even after two wins, it’s too early to hope for the Rockets to upset the Warriors and advance, but whatever else happens in this series, the Rockets have now demonstrated that the Warriors will need to be their very best going forward. For the first time in a long time, whether the Warriors have that gear appears to be an open question.