By Matt Citak
It took until the eighth contest of this year’s conference finals, but finally we were rewarded with a nail-biter.
The Houston Rockets entered Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals with their backs to the wall. Already down 2-1, losing a second straight game at Oracle Arena would have left the league’s regular-season champions in a deficit too large to overcome.
As good as Houston is, they knew that the chances of coming back from a 3-1 hole were quite slim. The Golden State Warriors have one of the most talented all-around rosters the NBA has ever seen, and it would have taken a monumental collapse for them to lose a 3-1 series lead. (Before you mention the 2015 NBA Finals, remember Kevin Durant was not on the team yet.)
So when the Warriors outscored the Rockets 34-17 in the third quarter of Tuesday night’s contest, building a 10-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, you could sense the blood pressure rising in Houston.
Steph Curry picked up 17 of his 28 points in the third quarter alone to help Golden State build its second-half lead. Considering it was Curry’s 18-point third quarter that helped ignite Houston’s downfall on Sunday, the former MVP’s performance Tuesday night looked like it would lead to a similar finish.
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But, unlike in Game 3, which saw the Rockets get outscored by 20 points in the final frame, Houston was prepared to leave everything on the court to even the series at two.
Chris Paul, who after the game admitted he’s been dealing with foot soreness since the end of Game 2, played a major role in Houston’s comeback. The All-Star point guard, appearing in his first conference finals, scored or assisted on 10 of the Rockets’ first 15 points in the fourth quarter, helping his team erase the 10-point deficit and take a one-point lead halfway through the fourth.
Houston desperately needed Paul to play up to his full potential, even with the foot injury, given how poorly James Harden performed in the second half.
Harden wowed in the first two quarters, dropping 24 points while looking just about unstoppable on the offensive end of the court. However that changed at halftime, and in the final 24 minutes, the likely league MVP went ice cold.
The 6-foot-5 guard couldn’t buy a shot in the second half, as he went 3-for-9 from the field and 0-for-5 from the three-point line. In the fourth quarter alone, Harden’s only points came on a layup while he missed all three of his attempts from deep.
Despite the Rockets finishing the regular season with the league’s second-best offense (trailing only the Warriors), it was the team’s defense that truly led to their significant Game 4 victory.
Houston limited Golden State and its historically potent offense to a mere 12 fourth-quarter points. The Warriors, with a lineup containing of two former MVPs in Curry and Durant, not to mention Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, shot a horrid 3-for-18 in the final frame. For those keeping track, that’s an abysmal 16.7 percent shooting.
The Rockets found a way to shut down Durant and Curry in the fourth, holding the pair to a combined 2-for-13 in the final 12 minutes, including 0-for-5 from long range. This was no easy feat considering the duo finished tied for sixth in the NBA in points per game this year at 26.4 each.
Houston showed a level of toughness on Tuesday that we have not really seen from Mike D’Antoni’s squad this year. The team finished the regular season with the NBA’s highest point differential, not to mention a league-leading 65 wins, and thus were not used to such physically and emotionally draining games.
But facing a do-or-die situation in what could be the most hostile environment in the NBA, against one of the most dominant teams in league history, the Rockets battled and found a way to even the series at two.
After the final buzzer, it became clear that if Houston ends up winning two of the next three games and reaching the Finals, the fourth quarter of Game 4 will likely have been the turning point of the series.
So for all of those that counted the Rockets out before the Western Conference Finals even began — it looks like we’ve got ourselves a series now.
Matt Citak is a contributor for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter.