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Houston Took The Warriors’ Best Punch — And Survived

At least twice during Tuesday night’s Rockets-Warriors Western Conference finals contest, the game — and possibly the whole series — looked to be all but over, with Golden State on the cusp of taking a commanding 3-1 advantage.

Instead, Houston survived a pair of haymakers from perhaps the most lethal offense in history and overcame incredible odds on the road, winning 95-92 to knot the series at two games each. Now a best-of-three series between the NBA’s two best clubs will decide who reaches the finals.

The game began with a bewildering stretch, one in which the Warriors jumped out to a 12-0 lead as the Rockets looked like they’d forgotten how to shoot. And despite how early it was, Golden State seemed like a pretty sure bet at that point given that the Dubs were playing at home, and that they very rarely blow a game in which they reel off a scoring run like that.

The real-time metrics reflected that notion as well: According to Inpredictable, an advanced-stats site that tracks in-game win probabilities, the Warriors had a whopping 91 percent probability of winning after just five minutes of play, before Houston had even scored.

Yet this would go on to be a strange game in a handful of respects. Andre Iguodala — an assist-to-turnover-ratio beast — was sidelined with a knee injury, and his absence seemed to hinder Golden State’s offense, which failed to move the ball effectively late. On top of that, Klay Thompson, he of the lightning-quick trigger, tweaked his knee and left the game briefly before coming back to shoot the ball horribly. And Rockets star James Harden, after looking totally lost on some defensive possessions, suddenly looked like a lockdown, All-NBA-level defender during the final two minutes of the first half — one Houston managed to win, 53-46.

The Warriors appeared to be on the verge of another knockdown again in the third quarter when Steph Curry caught fire. Golden State, the NBA’s best third-quarter team this season, surged ahead by 10, 80-70, to reach a 95 percent win probability heading into what most figured would be a runaway fourth.

That train never quite left the station, though, for a number of reasons. First, the Warriors lost momentum early in the fourth while Curry took a breather (this was a larger problem over the course of the night, as Golden State got outscored by 13 in the nine minutes the star point guard spent on the bench). And Curry himself lost the touch, shooting just 1-of-10 to conclude the game. Both he and Thompson were ice cold at that stage, and it didn’t help matters that Kevin Durant’s shot selection was uncharacteristically poor for the evening.

Durant’s quantified shot quality (qSQ) — a metric that measures the likelihood of a shot going in if taken by an average player — was just 41.5 percent, a rate that not only would’ve ranked as the lowest average shot quality of any player in the NBA this past season,1 but also rated as the third-worst mark Durant has posted in an individual game all year, according to data from Second Spectrum and NBA Advanced Stats.2

Collectively, the Warriors finished the night by shooting 16.7 percent (3-of-18) in the fourth, their worst shooting quarter of the entire season, per ESPN Stats & Information Group. In addition to the bad shooting, the Warriors had some mental lapses with the game on the line. For example, they didn’t call time out to stop a broken play during a critical late-game possession, and Thompson ended up forcing an awful shot as a result. But the truth is, the Rockets deserve a ton of credit for maintaining their composure twice while on the ropes.

Houston’s defense, under pressure to not lose sight of the multitude of shooters the Warriors run off perimeter screens, played extremely well. “I thought this was the highest level we’ve ever played at defensively. Without a doubt,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni told reporters after the victory. Even guard Gerald Green, who took criticism for his own poor shot choice, played well on defense and broke Curry’s rhythm early in the fourth with an impressive block from behind.

Chris Paul was masterful, scoring 27 points by hitting a handful of tough, Curry-like jumpers while also dishing out the kinds of passes that only he can thread through a defense like Golden State’s.

Of course, there are still a few important questions about this series. Will the Warriors get Iguodala back in the next couple of days? How will Thompson’s knee hold up the rest of the series? And perhaps most important for the Rockets (especially if the series goes seven): Will they feel refreshed enough to play well with such a short rotation? D’Antoni used a total of just seven players Tuesday night, with Harden and Paul putting in 43 and 42 minutes, respectively.

We don’t know the answers to any of these just yet. But there’s a good chance that one of these questions, if not all of them, will play a big role in deciding who ends up winning what has been a wild, wild West.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Among players with at least 500 shot attempts.

  2. His two games that ranked worse: Jan. 10 against the Clippers (41.4 percent), and April 3 against Oklahoma City (40.1 percent).

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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