Apparently the Houston Rockets just need to be on the brink of elimination to play their best basketball. As bad as the Rockets were in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Houston was that good in a 128-115 Game 4 victory to stave off elimination.
James Harden epitomized the dichotomy of the two performances. Harden was dreadful in the Game 3 debacle, scoring just 17 points on 3-of-16 shooting. On Monday night, the MVP runner-up torched the nets to the tune of a playoff career-high 45 points on 13-of-22 shooting overall and 7-of-11 from three-point range. 33 of those points came in the second half as he had a bunch of huge buckets to answer runs by Golden State. Apparently hitting up that Drake show really worked.
The Rockets came out guns blazin’ in Game 4, putting up a whopping 45 first-quarter points, the most points they’ve scored in any quarter this season. Houston made 17-of-22 shots in the opening frame and 8-of-9 from three-point range. Harden scored 10 points in the first quarter, but it was Josh Smith who was really hot to start, pouring in 13 points in the quarter on 5-of-5 shooting overall and 3-of-3 from long distance.
The Warriors’ defense was all out of sorts, but the Rockets also made them pay for almost every mistake. Literally almost every single mistake. When Smith is burying a bunch of jumpers against you, then it’s probably just not your night.
Houston’s scoring barrage had them up 25 points early in the second quarter and up 19 when Stephen Curry came crashing to the ground in a heap. Curry hit his head hard on the ground and stayed down for several minutes before walking on his own to the locker room. The MVP was diagnosed with a head contusion and later returned to the game after passing concussion tests.
While Curry was down, the Warriors, namely Klay Thompson, began to chip away at their huge deficit. That margin got down to just seven at the end of the first half before Jason Terry buried a huge corner three to make it a 10-point game at halftime.
Golden State hung around to start the third quarter when Curry came back into the game midway through the frame. It was a nine-point contest at that juncture, but then Harden scored nine points in less than two minutes as the Rockets quickly went back up by 19 and then 22 with three minutes left to go in the quarter. The margin was 15 heading into the fourth.
The Warriors kept on coming thanks to their three-point shooting, and after a Curry three-pointer made it a six-point game with 8:23 to play, it almost felt inevitable that this series was about to be over. But James Harden put his team on his back, scoring seven straight points to make it a 13-point game again and essentially icing it. Houston’s lead never got below eight points the rest of the game.
In addition to Harden’s 45, Smith finished with 20 points on 7-of-8 shooting. There was some Hack-a-Smith ugliness at the end of the game as he went 3-of-12 from the free throw line, but it didn’t matter. Dwight Howard (who was lucky he wasn’t tossed after taking a swing at Andrew Bogut in the second half), Trevor Ariza and Jason Terry all scored in double figures, as did Terrence Jones off the bench. The Rockets shot 56.6 percent overall and went 17-of-32 from long range, while the Warriors went 20-of-46 from three. That’s a lot of three-pointers.
We should have known that Harden and his Rockets wouldn’t go down without a fight after what happened against the Los Angeles Clippers in the last round. It’s still a near impossibility Houston pulls off another miracle in this round, and it wouldn’t surprise anybody if Golden State won Game 5 at Oracle going away. But credit to the Rockets for at least extending this series and making things somewhat interesting.