Stephen Curry hits like a landslide. His fits of long-range shooting—particularly those fueled by Oracle’s rapturous crowd—knock an opponent off their feet, destabalizing the very foundation of what they do. Defenders fall into the sort of panic that only makes matters worse. Opposing scorers are weighed down by the prospect of Curry’s inevitable response; one can feel the game’s coursing momentum, and through it the pressing need to make good on every opportunity.
That pressure rose in the third quarter of Game 4 and threatened to swallow the Rockets whole. Curry himself scored 14 points in little more than three minutes—rainbow jumpers beyond what a mismatched Clint Capela could contest, and layups at the expense of a step-slow James Harden. In between salvos from Curry, Kevin Durant exploited a faltering defense with buckets of his own. The Warriors swung the quarter by 17 points, as they do, to turn a seven-point deficit into a 10-point lead.
Against 28 of the NBA’s teams, the story likely ends there. Houston wouldn’t allow it. The Rockets plodded their way through the fourth quarter and all the way back, wearing the Warriors down in the process. When the dust settled, Houston had claimed a 95-92 victory in a stunning display of attrition—effectively undoing every one of the Warriors’ propulsive third-quarter scores by sheer force of will.
The Rockets, as it turns out, can absorb that kind of blow when they make the game a grind. Harden (30 points on 26 shots) and Chris Paul (27 points on 20 shots) continued to work every angle in isolation, all while Houston’s small-ball defense denied Golden State any sort of functional rhythm. The Warriors went through their progressions late in this game only to turn up empty; all of their best intentions and off-ball movement would end with a desperate attempt in the final seconds of the shot clock. Curry’s attempts to create off the dribble spilled with mishandled dribbles and understandable heat checks. Durant was too often an afterthought. And the mighty, unbeatable, Presumptive Champion Warriors were held to their worst shooting quarter of the season: a 3-of-18 display (17%) with four turnovers when the series was theirs to put away.
Not enough can be said of Houston getting good minutes from Eric Gordon and Gerald Green when they were desperately needed, or for the ever-dependable work of Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker in coverage. Both teams came to the fourth quarter sapped of their best. The difficulty of the series had distilled the Rockets’ entire playing rotation down to seven players. A knee injury had sidelined Golden State’s Andre Iguodala, demanding extended minutes from Durant and Draymond Green, among others. Houston barely had enough to limp its way to the finish line, but it somehow ensured that Golden State would drag even further behind. The team that barely seemed capable of guarding the Warriors at the start of this series got every stop necessary to save it.
It’s no small thing to contest Durant, Curry, and Klay Thompson at once—to cover all three in such a way that doesn’t leave some painful weakness exposed. Houston proved it possible. Golden State was on its game until it wasn’t; Curry was getting the rhythm shots he likes until they vanished; and the Warriors’ offense flowed smoothly until it was dammed to a dead stop. Few are the cases where this all-time offense cannot produce some version of the shots it wants. The Rockets made it so—all at the most crucial juncture of their season.
For that they deserve tremendous credit. The team led by Harden, Paul, and Mike D’Antoni—all of whom have been pilloried for their playoff failures—never flinched. They gritted their teeth as Curry turned the third quarter into his personal dance party and then played Oracle Arena into stunned silence in the fourth. They won ugly, but without for a second compromising their style or philosophy. Hanging with the Warriors is never easy. The Rockets embraced that, so much so that they reminded the Warriors—immortal as they seem—of the pangs of hardship.