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The Rockets are the Warriors’ only real challenger, and they proved it

Golden State hasn’t been tested in a couple years, and Houston’s here to do just that.

NBA: Playoffs-Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Rockets started the fourth quarter down 10 points. It was Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals, and it felt like the game — and the series, and the season — might be over.

And then, improbably, impossibly, they won.

It took 12 minutes of the most brutish basketball we’ve seen this postseason for the Rockets to erase the Golden State Warriors’ lead, surge ahead by a minuscule five points, and hold onto that lead for dear life, taking Game 4 with a 95-92 margin of victory. As Steve Kerr called it in his postgame press conference, it was “trench warfare.” That might have undersold it. In truth, this game had an atmosphere and a tension that we haven’t felt in a basketball showdown since June 19, 2016.

The date, mind you, is the last time that Golden State lost at Oracle Arena in the postseason. You remember it: Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. The Warriors came into Tuesday with 16 straight home playoffs wins, seriously, and they still left with the series tied at two.

Is there any team in the league besides the Rockets that could have done that? Houston didn’t just hold up against the Warriors, but they withstood a third quarter knockout blow. They went into halftime up nine, only to lose the next frame by 17 points, powered by a Stephen Curry explosion (17 points and five three-pointers in 12 minutes). Golden State outscored their opponents by double digits in the third quarter 30 times this year, and they won 30 times. In the 31st time, this game, they finally lost.

Let me answer that question from earlier: no team in the league could have withstood Golden State’s push. No team but Houston.

Let’s just talk about the fourth quarter.

The numbers say so much here.

  • The final point totals: Houston 25, Golden State 12.
  • The Warriors finished 3-of-18 in the frame, with four turnovers.
  • Houston only managed 7-of-20 shooting, but they made eight free throws and only turned the ball over once.
  • Chris Paul played all 12 minutes. P.J. Tucker sat for only 94 seconds. James Harden and Eric Gordon each got a “breather”: just two minutes and a second. But hey, in that situation, you take what you can get.

The 25-point quarter was just enough to push ahead, but Houston only scored 10 points in the final half of the frame, and just one point in the final 2:26 — a Paul free throw after he was fouled with fractions of a second left. D’Antoni singled out his team’s exceptional defense, and he was absolutely right.

I could show you a play here or there, but those don’t do justice to the full fourth quarter, all 12 minutes, that the Rockets played maximum-effort defense. Golden State screwed up a fair number of times, too — the third quarter was a reminder that they can be unguardable at their peak. But Houston defended every possession to their absolute limits.

That limit is quite high, given the Rockets finished sixth in the league in defensive rating this season. They finished the game with Trevor Ariza, Gordon, and Tucker surrounding the two stars, a defense-laden trio that suffocated Golden State. Consider the last possession, timeout-that-should’ve-been-called be damned, and how much the Rockets shut down any real chance that the Warriors had.

It was emblematic of the frame as a whole. Even Gerald Green had a couple great moments! Yes, that’s a totally real sentence I just wrote about Green’s defense showing up in the Western Conference Finals.

D’Antoni won’t be proud of his team’s offensive effort, not in the final few minutes of the fourth quarter and not in the game as a whole. But to see one of his teams saved the day with defense is a beautiful, full-circle miracle.

This is why Houston is Golden State’s only real challenger

What team besides the Rockets could beat the Warriors both in a shootout (potentially) and a defensive grindfest on Oracle Arena hardwood? Only Houston could manage that. On Tuesday, they did the latter.

Most pundits picked Golden State in six games, and that’s clearly on the table. (It would be very Houston to win this game, drop Game 5, and lose in six.) In wins, the Warriors have looked dominate. The series may head back to Houston for Game 5, but we’ve twice seen that doesn’t matter. Andre Iguodala’s knee injury holding him out and Klay Thompson’s knee sprain potentially hampering him both are situations that could be resolved headed into Thursday’s game. Let’s not pretend like Golden State has turned into massive underdogs.

The Rockets earned their Game 4 win, though, and only they were capable of earning it in that manner. Since Golden State emerged on the scene four years ago, they haven’t had many true challengers.

Well, Houston’s one.