OAKLAND, Calif. -- Maybe they are built for this after all, these rugged Houston Rockets.
Twice they absorbed knockout blows from the reigning champion Golden State Warriors in a do-or-die Game 4 of the Western Conference finals in a raucous Oracle Arena.
And both times the Rockets got up off the floor and battled back, showing championship mettle of their own, to do what no team has done to these Warriors since Kevin Durant joined them.
The Rockets showed up five minutes late, battled back from a 12-0 blitz to start the game and a 27-8 third quarter avalanche to win 95-92 and tie this series at 2-2 and reclaim the home-court advantage they lost in Game 1.
With the game, and their franchise-best 65-win regular season and basically everything on the line, the Rockets outplayed the mighty Warriors down the stretch to snap the NBA playoff-record 16-game home win streak.
We're a confident team. We believe in ourselves and we went out and showed that we can win anywhere.
They proved that they belong on this big stage and that they are who they thought they were when they were dominating the league throughout the course of the regular season.
“I just think this was confidence,” said veteran forward Trevor Ariza, the only player on the Rockets’ roster who owns a championship ring (Los Angeles Lakers, 2009). “We're a confident team. We believe in ourselves and we went out and showed that we can win anywhere.”
It was the Warriors, the group with all of the experience in these moments, that melted down late in the game, not the Rockets.
The pressure that Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni insisted was on the Warriors after his team’s 41-point loss in Game 3 Sunday was there. The Rockets outscored the Warriors 25-12 in the fourth quarter.
The Warriors shot just 3-for-18 after torching the Rockets for 34 points, 17 from Stephen Curry, in a third quarter that looked like one of their signature waves that usually slams the door on the opposition.
But not this time. Not with the Rockets playing their best defensive quarter of the season, according to D’Antoni.
“Yeah, I thought it was the highest level we’ve ever played defensively, without a doubt,” he said. “Because you're talking about maybe the best offensive team ever, and they got on a roll. Even when we were down 12-zip, there was some good defense in there to get us back, because we weren’t lighting it up to get it back.
“So (we) just got a lot of tough stops and a lot of tough rebounds, getting loose balls and we didn’t get into foul trouble too early. It was just a lot of good things. Great switching and they got a little tired in the fourth quarter, and that’s because they felt us for three quarters. If we can repeat that, and that’s what the formula is, and we’ll see if we can do that when we get to Houston.”
The Rockets couldn’t have gone home even without the work Chris Paul put in during the first pressure-cooker game of this series.
Playing on a sore foot, he was nothing short of magnificent in the fourth, scoring eight of his 27 points, while showing the sort of toughness the Rockets lacked before his arrival last summer in a blockbuster trade.
“Man, he’s been doing it for so long,” James Harden said of his fellow superstar point guard. “Now he has an opportunity to do it on this stage. I mean, everybody knows how great he is, from his passing ability to his big shot-making ability, and even to his defense. He was huge for us tonight."
That’s all Paul was focused on.
One chance to make things right.
“It was a good win for us,” he said. “We knew we needed it, but we said all along with both teams home court doesn’t really matter. Both teams have the ability to win on the road. We had to prove that to ourselves. Weathering the storm, the runs that they made, and knowing that now we got a chance to go back home, we knew we had to get at least one win here. We got it, so now it’s a three-game series.”
D’Antoni only used seven players to get the job done, leaning on his core group in a grueling game to flip this series into a best-of-three with the Rockets back in a position of power.
The trust and faith he showed in his core group paid off.
“We’re confident in what we do,”Ariza said.“When we are locked in to what we are doing and what we are supposed to be doing, we are a really good defensive team. We’re a really good team, period. We just came out and played hard tonight.
For all the hard-earned hype about the Warriors and what they are capable of, the Rockets still haven’t lost consecutive games in this postseason. They are 4-2 on the road, 2-0 in games decided by three points or less and a perfect 5-0 when Paul scores 25 or more points.
They still have work to do in this series, of course, but they are on a path that suggests they possess the sort of fiber needed to make it into the championship discussion.
D’Antoni called them soft after that Game 3 embarrassment. He praised their toughness on this night, and rightfully so.
“We’ve been doing it all year long,” said Harden, who scored just two of his game-high 30 points in the fourth quarter. “That’s the main reason we’re in the position we’re in today. That third game was just one loss. We all know that. We’ve got the mentality that we’re going to win Game 4. We talked about it. We’ve preached it.
“They made runs and they were going to, especially at home. And we kept fighting, kept fighting and defensively kept locking in and making big-time shots. Chris and Eric (Gordon) and Trevor, guys made big-time shots in that fourth quarter.”
A fourth quarter that changed this series and could potentially change the entire postseason landscape, depending on what comes next from this team with its destiny back in its own hands.
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