HOUSTON — Middle linebackers vs. volleyball players.
That’s how Steve Kerr described Houston Rockets-Golden State Warriors games. It was an unexpected but quite effective comparison: a bruising team that looks for contact and spends lots of time on the floor against a long, lean squad that uses teamwork and finesse to build toward power spikes.
Call it whatever you want, but this Western Conference semifinal turned into a terrific series during the two games in Houston, the type of matchup the league and its fans had been anticipating for a year.
The over-the-top complaining about the officiating has gone away after the Warriors’ two victories in Oakland, at least for now. James Harden’s vision has cleared up, and his game has roared back to its MVP level. Kevin Durant is still playing terrifically, and his back-and-forth with Harden is maturing toward historic duel territory. The pressure on Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson is ramping up. The entire basketball world is gaining a new appreciation for PJ Tucker.
Simply, you can feel the intensity building with each skin-tight game. The level of shot-making, execution and gamesmanship is the bedrock of the current popularity of the league.
With the Rockets’ 112-108 victory on Monday in Game 4, which followed their gritty Game 3 overtime win, it’s now 2-2, and this has another seven-game series written all over it. And the combatants are totally into it.
“We love it,” Curry said.
“This is fun,” Chris Paul said.
“I love this, I do,” Kerr said.
“It’s the playoffs,” Thompson said.
The edge you’d expect with this situation — this is the fourth postseason meeting in five seasons, and there has been consequence to every game these teams have played over the past two years — is roaring to life.
Draymond Green and Paul have been in each other’s faces. Durant and Paul have been in each other’s faces. Durant even had words with Harden’s mother in her courtside seat during Monday’s game.
The bruises are piling up. Green has poked Harden in the eye. Durant has elbowed Harden in the head. Harden has nailed Green in the head. A bunch of other guys have gone down, many of them on flops, but some have surely been legitimate. Everyone is sore. The fatigue is starting to take hold. It’s an unfolding classic.
For a second straight game, Durant and Harden battled in a tremendous shot-for-shot slugfest. After Harden answered Durant’s 46 points with 41 of his own Saturday night, they were pouring in shots on top of each other Monday too — as Harden scored 20 of his 38 in the second half, with Durant scoring 22 of his 34.
The slump that was weighing Harden down early in the series has vanished as his floater game has returned, giving him the inside-out action that is the basis for his offensive greatness. He had been 8-of-29 on floaters through his first seven playoff games, but he is 5-of-9 over the past two, according to ESPN Stats & Information tracking.
Meanwhile, the coaches are locked in a tactical battle. Kerr caught Mike D’Antoni off guard in Game 1 when he put Andre Iguodala into the starting lineup for the first time all season, moving Green to center. D’Antoni has countered, rolling out lineups with Tucker at center that have even more shooting than the Warriors’ lineups, believe it or not.
The Warriors have claimed success by largely defanging Clint Capela.
But the Rockets have hit back with their shooters; they have a breathtaking 26 more 3-pointers in the series than Golden State. They made nine more 3-pointers than the Warriors on Monday, the second-worst 3-point differential for Golden State in its postseason history.
Eric Gordon already has made 16 3-pointers in the series and is averaging 23 points a game. Tucker and Austin Rivers have combined to make 14 3-pointers and are shooting 48 percent collectively on them. Meanwhile, Thompson is just 8-of-26, and Curry already has missed 34 treys, the most in a four-game span in his playoff career.
“It’s intense and every possession matters,” said Paul, who had 13 points in Game 4. “If you love to hoop, then you want that challenge to try to stop some of the best players to ever play.”
The moods of the teams are so telling. Both are absolutely convinced they’re going to win. Harden, his eye still red and a bump on his head, practically floated out of the building he was so energized by his play. The Warriors pointed out that they feel much better than after Game 4 last season because they’re healthier and feel like the Rockets are barely beating them, even with Curry and Thompson now the ones struggling.
Some playoff series, even close ones, feel like a slog toward what can seem an eventuality. This is the joyous inverse. There’s unknown, and that is a space that will probably be filled with the kind of performances that will help define many of these players’ legacies.
There very well might be a few historic moments coming here from a load of future Hall of Famers. Ten years from now, you might be watching a 30 for 30 documentary about what’s about to go down over the next few games. And it sure does feel like there’s going to be three more of them.
The players feel it too. And they can’t wait.
“We’re excited for Game 5, just like I’m sure they are,” Durant said. “It’s going to be a great basketball game.”
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