Programming note: Watch "Warriors Playoff Central" Wednesday night at 5 p.m., and immediately after Game 5 on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area. Both shows will be streaming live right here.
HOUSTON – The Warriors took the floor Monday night with their own recent history on their side. The recent history of the Rockets, however, proved more potent.
There will be a Game 5 in the Western Conference Finals, as Houston staved off a sweep by hanging a tip-to-horn 128-115 defeat on the Warriors before a roaring crowd at Toyota Center.
The Warriors now hold a 3-1 lead as the best-of-seven series shifts back Oracle Arena in Oakland for Game 5 on Wednesday night.
The Warriors had gone on the road to win two consecutive closeout games, first at New Orleans and then at Memphis, and were seeking a third. They fell behind early, fell apart at times and watched as their leader, Stephen Curry, fell to the floor with a horrible thud.
Curry left the game midway through the second quarter, was diagnosed with a head contusion and returned midway through the third. He later said he felt OK.
The same could not be said of the Warriors on this night, as the Rockets were aggressive at the start, taking a double-digit lead three minutes after tipoff and torching a defense they could not penetrate in Game 3.
“They made everything,” coach Steve Kerr said of the Rockets. “They won the game in the first quarter. They were ready to play, probably more ready than we were.”
The Warriors were down 19-3 after five minutes, 45-23 after the first quarter – in which Houston shot an astonishing 77.3 percent (17 of 22), including a preposterous 88.9 percent (8 of 9) beyond the 3-point arc. The Rockets made 11 consecutive shots during one stretch of the quarter.
“We got our asses kicked, basically,” center Andrew Bogut said.
The Warriors rallied late in the second half, bringing the score to 69-59 at the half, but never got closer than six the rest of the way.
“Once they started rolling, they just never stopped,” forward Harrison Barnes said.
“We didn’t come out, and they were on fire,” said Klay Thompson, who led the Warriors with 24 points. “We gave them 45 points in the first quarter, and that’s ridiculous.”
Rockets star James Harden, held to 17 points on 3-of-16 shooting from the field in Game 3, made an excellent recovery, finishing with a career playoff-high 45 points on 13-of-22 shooting, including 7-of-11 from deep.
It was enough to give the Rockets hope of another improbable comeback; they were down 3-1 to the Clippers in the conference semifinals before coming back to win in seven.
Though the Warriors did have some turnover problems early, their biggest issue was defense. They were a step slow, when they were reaching. They were blind to Houston movement when they weren’t getting back in transition.
“We got beat on backdoor cuts,” Kerr noted. “That’s usually a pretty good sign that you’re not ready to play defense.”
They weren’t ready to play offense, either. The Warriors missed their first five shots and nine of their first 11. They shot only 32 percent in the opening quarter before pulling it together to shoot 62.5 percent in the second.
So now it’s back to Oakland, where the Warriors were 39-2 in the regular season and are 6-1 in the postseason.
“We just don’t want to come back to Houston,” Thompson said. “We want to go to The Finals for the first time in 40 years or whatever. It’s not going to be easy. They are here for a reason. We have to come and play with more intensity and play together and we’ll win the game.”
Other than Curry’s recovery and Draymond Green’s magnificent effort: 21 points (9-of-14) and 15 rebounds before fouling out late, there was the 43.5-percent shooting (20 of 46) beyond the arc – though much of it came in times of desperation.
The first quarter was the sorriest the Warriors have played this season and the first time an opponent has scored 45 points in a quarter – regular season of playoffs.
It was another tough night for Bogut, whose eight rebounds couldn’t offset zero points and three turnovers in 21 minutes.
While the Warriors did some fine 3-point shooting, the Rockets were even better, shooting 53.1 percent (17 of 32) from deep. The 37 combined 3-pointers shattered the previous NBA record of 33.
The Warriors played this game as if they couldn’t escape the “human nature” element that comes with being up 3-0. Intensity can be tough to generate when there are four chances to win one game – and that two of those chances would be at Oracle, where they are practically invincible.
It’s a dangerous game, but hard to avoid when no team in history has overcome a 3-0 lead in the conference finals. Houston remains in trouble, though, and both teams go into Game 5 knowing that.