Despite the 0-3 hole they faced entering Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, the Houston Rockets proved they weren’t going down without a fight as they took the 128-115 win over the Golden State Warriors stave off elimination.
Sparked by an early effort from Josh Smith, who scored 13 of his 20 points in the opening quarter; the Rockets jumped out to an early lead with a playoff record-tying 45-point first quarter.
"It was big for us to get out to a good start," Smith said. "(To) be able to come out and play aggressive. Let everything flow after that."
James Harden, who didn’t score his first points of the game until late in the first quarter while playing mostly a facilitator, finished the game with 45 points, 17 of which came in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach after a last-ditch effort by the Warriors to stay in the game. Despite setting a personal postseason career high, Harden attributed the Rockets’ success to stepping up the level of defense.
"Defense. We got stops. Early in the game, we got off to a big lead because we were defending," Harden said. "In the second quarter, we let up a little bit. We game them 37 points, I think, in the second quarter, which is too many. Luckily, we were up in that first quarter pretty big, but we’ve got to sustain four quarters of really good defense against this team."
After Harden had a difficult Game 3 after missing the chance to win Game 2 in Oakland, Rockets head coach Kevin McHale believes he was able to channel his frustrations to the court in Game 4 as he lead the team to the win.
"He was extremely unhappy [Sunday], and took it out â but that’s what you’ve got to do. You’ve got to take it out on them," McHale said. "It doesn’t do any good to take it out on the trainer and your teammates and your coach. You take it out on the other team, and he did ti. He went out and he played a hell of a game."
While the Warriors dominated the Rockets’ home court in Game 3 on Saturday, Houston made sure to keep Golden State – which never lead in the game – down despite several strong offensive runs led by NBA MVP Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
"I thought we did a nice job responding to their runs," McHale said. "They’re going to go small, they’re going to make some tough shots. Curry made those couple threes, [Thompson] had it going there for threes, but we were able to get to the line and slow some of that stuff down."
Curry finished the game with 23 points, but had a scare in second quarter after flipping over Trevor Ariza trying to get a rebound. He landed on his back, hitting the back of his head hard on the hardwood floor, taking several minutes to get up from the floor before walking under his own power to the locker room. Diagnosed with a head contusion, he was questionable to return, but did return to the court in the third quarter.
"Once [team doctors] said I was all right, I went out and played and tried to do what I could to help my team get back in the game," Curry said. "We came up a little short, but we’ll be all right next game."
Dwight Howard did his part in the game as he was one of six Rockets players scoring double digits with 14 points to go with 12 rebounds, but he received a flagrant 1 foul early in the third quarter after throwing an elbow at Andrew Bogut. After the game, there were concerns that the NBA could upgrade it to a flagrant 2 after review, which would mean the Rocket would be suspended by accumulation of flagrant foul points.
"There’s nothing I can do about it at this point," Howard said of the potential upgrade. "It’s never my intention to hurt anybody on the floor. My reaction was to try to get him off me, but I can’t react that way. Just try to do my best to get away from the situation as quick as possible."
While the odds are still against Houston to advance to the NBA Finals still down 3-1, the Rockets are taking each remaining game one at a time to hopefully make history as the first team to overcome a 3-0 deficit in a NBA playoff series.
"It’s always great when your season is extended. It just means you are one step closer to getting to where you want to go," Ariza said. "We are down but we are not out and we’re going to keep fighting until it’s over and we are going to keep fighting until we win or lose."