OAKLAND, Calif. — So this is what imperfection looks like in an otherwise mighty, dominant and frightening Kevin Durant era for the Warriors:
Passes slipping off fingertips … a Draymond Green missed free throw with seven seconds left … Steph Curry, throwing the ball out of bounds … Curry, missing a layup … Curry, heaving a desperate three-pointer off-balance … control of the game ripping and slipping from Golden State’s grip.
And finally: Durant, wobbly at the finish, dribbling up court with the game on the line … and shockingly surrendering the ball to Klay Thompson who was trapped deep in the corner, a poor decision leading to a poorly-aimed shot with a fraction of a second left.
The Warriors have now played 31 postseason games since the signing of Durant in July 2016 made them the bully on the block, and their fourth-quarter Tuesday has its very own dubious place as the worst 12 minutes of this nearly two-year run. They were good for just 12 points on three buckets out of 18 attempts. They looked confused, panic-stricken, helpless and ultimately toast against the Rockets, losing 95-92.
And now the Western Conference finals are tied at two apiece after a pair of playoff beliefs were laid to rest: Golden State being unbeatable at home and nearly-unbeatable with Durant. They’d won 16 straight at Oracle and were 29-4 overall with Durant (and undefeated at home with him).
Perhaps a flat moment was inevitable, since nothing lasts forever, and the Rockets surely are no slouches, anyway. Still, it was jarring to witness the Warriors’ inability to keep a comfortable lead and, once it vaporized, to snatch it back, something that comes naturally to champions.
Also, not to single out one particular player — OK, well perhaps — but Durant was uncharacteristically timid in that fourth quarter, never taking control, never rescuing the Warriors the way Chris Paul saved the Rockets, delivering just one basket and then passing up a chance to be the hero at the finish. He seemed to be locked in a trance, unable to wake up or spring himself free. A bystander mostly. Ghost-like.
That’s just not in his DNA, which is why his stretch play in Game 4 was so weird. This was something new to Durant, the difference-maker last season during the Warriors’ romp to a second title in three years, and someone who’s playing at a consistently high level this spring.
The screen shot of Game 4 is this: With 15 seconds left and the Rockets up two, James Harden missed a jumper, Green grabbed the rebound and gave it to Durant. With the clock ticking and the Rockets back pedaling, this was a stage made for Durant: Ball in his hands, with a chance to win or tie. Just the way the Warriors wanted it.
Kerr didn’t call a timeout in that situation, and debate that if you will; sometimes it’s better to let the play develop, rather than allow the defense to set, and you also risk having to throw an inbounds pass. Besides, the Warriors had four veteran All-Stars on the floor. Do they really need a pointer or two?
“Draymond was trying to call one around four seconds and at that point the officials weren’t looking,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “But I’m always a proponent of pushing the ball off of a miss rather than call timeout. I thought we’d get a better shot in transition. That’s why I let them play.”
Durant crossed mid-court and the Rockets didn’t immediately throw a double-team his way. Yet, the player who famously gut-punched LeBron James and the Cavaliers last summer with a pull-up three-pointer in a similar situation did not even look at the basket.
He threw to Thompson, who appeared surprised, who was surrounded by Rockets and trapped in the extreme corner of the court, to the left of the basket, looking uncomfortable and unaccustomed to seeing the ball in his hands in this situation.
Of course, in hindsight, Durant would like a do-over.
“I was trying to see if I had some options,” he said. “I saw Klay running along the baseline and maybe I should’ve waited until he set his feet. But I just threw a bounce pass. I wish it could’ve been a better possession at the end. We’ve got to live with that one.”
Or die with it, actually.
“I wish I had that play back,” he admitted. “I’m going to watch film and see what my options were and hopefully if I’m in that position again I’ll be better.”
He yielded heavily to Curry, but the problem is Curry wasn’t much better, making just a lone fourth-quarter basket himself and watching as the final shot of the game harmlessly nicked off the rim. Overall, the Warriors just didn’t have it — they were “fatigued” to use Kerr’s excuse — and lost a 12-point lead in the fourth and their command of the series as well.
It went deeper than just a sloppy fourth. The Rockets were the tougher team both mentally and physically — Paul daring to go nostril to nostril with Draymond a handful of times — and simply battled. How many people figured the Rockets would fold after the Warriors dropped 34 on them in the third quarter, 17 from Curry, and flipped the score heavily in their favor?
At that point, with the crowd roaring and sensing a quick series, and Curry splashing deep threes and doing shimmies again, and Durant with 21 points through three quarters, what could possibly go wrong for the home team?
“I mean, when you get a lead like that, it would help to sustain it,” Curry said.
The Warriors had only one assist in the fourth and their offensive sets were essentially a string of isolation plays. Again, that’s not necessarily bad for them; Golden State thrives in any style. Yet the Rockets figured them out and the Warriors had no answer, mainly because the ball wouldn’t fall. Sometimes, there are no other valid excuses; it’s a make-or-miss league.
They played without Andre Iguodala, resting with a bum knee. Iguodala often bails out the Warriors during rare tough stretches, yet the game was winnable even without him. Also, Thompson briefly left the game early with a knee issue yet returned and played without a limp.
For the first time, a game in the West final had suspense after margins of 13, 22 and 41. The largest lead in the final nine minutes was only five. Basketball fans finally got what they wanted, a compelling game and now, perhaps, a series as well, since it’s guaranteed to go at least six.
What the Warriors want is some explanation from the Basketball Gods about what overcame them in the fourth quarter, because this was something new for Durant and crew.
“We just ran out of gas,” said Kerr.
“Not an ideal situation,” said Curry.
“It was there for the taking,” said Thompson.
They’ll have two more games to reclaim their identity. Three if necessary.
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