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The Rockets Cheated Death in Game 4

Houston stared down one of the Warriors’ devastating third-quarter runs on Tuesday and lived to tell the tale. The result not only evens up the Western Conference finals; it shows that these Rockets may have what it takes to topple the NBA’s most unstoppable force.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I don’t think the Warriors had ever lost a game at Oracle Arena in which Steph Curry shimmied.

Golden State is the king of the knockout. If you’ve watched the NBA in the past few years, you’ve seen it: Curry hits some unguardable shot that makes his defender wonder what he could’ve done better, then hits one slightly more preposterous on the next trip down the floor. Klay Thompson gets a quarter-inch of space when the defense tries to stop Curry at all costs and swishes a 3-pointer of his own. And in the midst of it all, Kevin Durant continues to be the league’s best scorer. In the span of a few minutes, this offensive juggernaut can put together spirit-crushing runs that seem to end games. The Warriors flame-broil opponents alive, torching nets and their opponents’ morale to the tune of 20,000 Bay Area screams. How are opponents supposed to react when Golden State does this? For four years, the answer has been simple: Just accept that there’s nothing that can be done. When they’re this hot, there is no hope.

But on Tuesday night, the Rockets stared down Golden State at its hottest and came out with a critical 95-92 win in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals.

There were a few points during Game 4 when I assumed it was over. The first came in the opening minutes, as the Warriors scored the first 12 points of the contest. Later in the first quarter, James Harden—a man who averaged 10 3-point attempts per game this year, and who plays for a team that urges all its players to shoot 3s at all times—looked at an opportunity to take a wide-open 3 and demurely passed, even though no Golden State players were trying to contest his shot.

It was one of the oddest plays I’ve ever seen anyone make in a critical game. I assumed the Rockets were too shook to function, or that Harden was shaving points.

But the Rockets were more resilient than I could have imagined. A quarter after passing up a 3 nobody was contesting, Harden took on Golden State’s best defender and won, dunking on Draymond Green harder than anybody has ever dunked on Draymond Green.

The Rockets rallied back with a huge second quarter to take a seven-point halftime lead. But that, of course, is when the problems typically start. The Warriors’ third-quarter success this season is the stuff of NBA legend. Sure, opponents can psych themselves up to face the Warriors and go into halftime feeling comfortable. But then the Warriors emerge from halftime with a flamethrower, and the opponent is toast. (Extremely crispy toast.)

That happened Tuesday night. The Warriors outscored the Rockets 34-17 in the third quarter, a period when Curry scored 17 points and hit three consecutive 3-point attempts in 55 seconds without the Rockets scoring a point. At one point in the third, the Warriors went on an 18-3 run.

Here are some facts about Warriors runs: The Warriors had outscored their opponent by more than 10 points in the third quarter 30 times this season, playoffs included. They had won all 30 games. Since their championship season in 2014-15, they’d outscored their opponent by at least 15 points in the third quarter 51 times. They had won all 51 games. And since that same season, they’d outscored opponents in a single quarter by 15 or more at home in 68 times. They had won all 68 games. (Basketball-Reference doesn’t have stats about Curry shimmies, but I’m guessing they were, like, 84-0 in those games.)

When you see a quarter like this, you know death has come for you. A bunch of vultures circle around you as you watch the video from The Ring while a parade of black cats walk across every possible escape path. You have to accept the fact you’re being dismembered publicly for the enjoyment of Silicon Valley tech bros, and that Curry is going to do the only dance he knows how to do on your gravestone.

But you can add a one to the loss column for all those totals, because the Rockets looked death in the eye and lived. Golden State shot just 3-for-18 in the fourth quarter, including 0-for-6 from 3. The Warriors scored just 12 points, tied for the second-lowest total in the 1,616 quarters they’ve played since the start of the 2014-15 season. (They scored just 11 in the first quarter of Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals.) It was one of the sloppiest games you’ll ever see them play; they had 16 turnovers and tied for a season-low 14 assists. Have you ever seen the Warriors miss shots like these?

But let’s be clear: The Rockets won this damn game. James Harden had 30 points, Chris Paul had 27, and the Rockets’ defensive intensity kept up even after a quarter when Golden State displayed that no amount of defensive intensity would keep it from hitting shots. Look, it’s James Harden playing defense!

The Rockets have gotten their asses kicked a couple of times in this series. They lost by 41 on Sunday night—41 points, the type of ass-kicking that requires ass-kicking for all 48 minutes, even after the game’s result has long been decided. And then that third quarter happened, and it looked like the Warriors’ foot was reared to swing at Houston’s butt again. But Harden and Paul found depths of mental fortitude that NBA Twitter was convinced they didn’t have. It feels like Houston stole this game, because it did: Nobody has survived an offensive onslaught from the Warriors, the team better suited for doling out onslaughts than any in NBA history. Now the series is tied at two, and the Rockets have home-court advantage.

The only thing as loud as the Oracle Arena crowd over the past few years has been the collective lament from the rest of the NBA world as we stare at the Warriors with a sense of oncoming doom. With that assemblage of players, isn’t victory inevitable? Doesn’t the NBA just have to roll over and accept that the Warriors are going to win every year?

Tuesday night, the Rockets cheated death. If they can win that game against these Warriors, it’s a sign that they might be able to stop what was previously thought unstoppable.