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As Rockets even series, Warriors in real trouble for first time since getting Kevin Durant

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 5/23/2018 Sam Amick
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OAKLAND — Score one for competitive balance in the NBA, and credit the Houston Rockets with the assist.

All that whining about how Golden State ruined basketball by landing Kevin Durant in free agency two summers ago, about how commissioner Adam Silver might as well pre-schedule the shipment of the Larry O’Brien trophy to the Warriors’ offices for every June, and here they are stuck in a slugfest with the one team that was willing and able to rise to this challenge. No matter what happens next in these Western Conference finals that are tied 2-2 after Houston’s 95-92 win in Game 4, we know this much now: For the first time since Durant came to town, the Warriors are in real trouble.

Before this series, the Warriors had gone a combined 24-3 in the playoffs since last season while never losing more than one game in any of the six series in which they’d played. And with Game 5 in Houston looming so large on Thursday, it’s the Warriors who were here before Durant who will have to remember how to get through these sorts of tough times.

There was the 2-1 second-round deficit against Memphis in 2015 that they overcame, then the 2-1 Cleveland Cavaliers hill to climb in those Finals that led to Golden State’s first title of this era. There was the 3-1 deficit to Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2016 West finals, an incredible comeback that is so often forgotten because of the Golden State debacle that happened next. Cavs down 3-1 in the Finals, and you know the rest.

More: Chris Paul, Rockets stun Warriors in Game 4 thriller to steal homecourt advantage

More: Must-see moments from insane Game 4

Take a bow, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey and coach Mike D’Antoni. When it comes to the debate about the league’s lack of parity, pushing the defending champs into a virtual three-game series with two games at home counts as major progress on this front.

All those offseason additions were made with the Warriors in mind, from superstar Chris Paul to forward P.J. Tucker and even the midseason pickup of journeyman Gerald Green, and there they were putting it all together at the perfect time. Morey has always vowed to make the most of Harden’s prime, but he learned the hard way in the five-game conference finals three years ago that even the pre-Durant Warriors were too much for one star to handle alone.

So Paul, who fought through foot trouble to score 27 points, came to town as a fellow alpha male who could impact their culture. His competitiveness is contagious, and Paul’s beginning-to-end preaching about defense set the necessary tone. All of it – the jump in defensive rating from 18th last season to sixth; all those skull sessions with lead defensive assistant Jeff Bzdelik – was for nights like this.

The rim shrunk for the Warriors in their 12-point fourth quarter, when their 10-point lead disappeared and 15 of their 18 attempts misfired in all (including a combined 2 of 13 shooting from Steph Curry and Kevin Durant). It was exactly what Morey had dreamed of when he pondered ways to deal with Golden State’s superstar roster, not only with all that length and versatility on the roster but with fire in the belly on both ends of the floor.

Paul surely beamed during Harden’s surreal second quarter stretch, when the league’s most notorious ole’ defender picked Kevin Durant’s pocket on back-to-back possessions as Houston grabbed a lead. His posterizing dunk of Draymond Green in the second quarter was viral within minutes, but it’s the game-high seven deflections on the defensive end that the Rockets’ coaching staff will likely praise as they prepare for Game 5 in Houston on Tuesday.

Tucker brought a nastiness that has worked well with rising center Clint Capela in the frontcourt, and had his best defensive game yet in this series by grabbing 16 rebounds (seven in the fourth) and posting a plus-7 rating. Green did tremendous work on Curry in the fourth, slowing him after that 17-point outburst in the third quarter.  By the time it was all over, the Warriors’ league-leading offense had its second-lowest scoring total of the playoffs and scored fewer than 93 points for just the eighth time all season.

Considering the Rockets were just two days removed from an embarrassing 41-point loss in Game 3, it took a great deal of collective belief to not wave the white flag after what happened in the first and third quarters of Game 4. Then again, refusing to yield has long since become the theme of their season.

The Warriors jumped out to a 12-0 lead at the start while Houston missed its first eight shots, yet a stellar second quarter kept Houston close. Curry carried the Warriors during their latest trademark third quarter after the break, but the Rockets dominated down the stretch.

“We've been doing it all year long,” said Harden, who had 24 of his 30 points in the first half. “That's the main reason we're in this position we're in today. That third game was just one loss. We all know what that is. We've got the mentality that we're going to win Game 4. We've talked about it. We've preached it. And we came out and then stopped (the Warriors). They made runs and they were going to, especially at home, and we kept fighting, kept fighting, and defensively kept locking in and making big time shots, Chris, and Eric (Gordon) and Trevor (Ariza), guys made big-time shots in that fourth quarter.”

It was as gritty a win as you’ll ever find, and as clear a sign as any that Golden State's would-be dynasty is in peril.

“It's all about toughness right now,” D’Antoni said. “There was great basketball played on both sides, stretches of it, the rest of it is just gutting it out and finding a will, a way, and a want.

“They believe in each other. They can get on each other and push each other and do all the right things and (it’s) all from the right spot. Everybody just win, no matter what.”

Related Slideshow: Best of the 2018 NBA playoffs (provided by photo services)


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