The Houston Rockets just won't die.
They led wire-to-wire in their building and got 45 points from James Harden to extend the Western Conference Finals to a Game 5. Harden was spectacular, shooting 13-22 for the game, 12-13 from the free throw line and 7-11 from downtown. He added 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 blocks and 2 steals, and snuffed out every run the Warriors made.
The Rockets won 128-115, earning their fourth straight win in a game where their opponent can close out a series against them.
The first quarter was a daze of three-pointers and open layups. The Rockets dropped 45 points -- an NBA record for a first quarter in the playoffs -- and shot 8/9 from deep to grab a 45-22 lead. Josh Smith went 5-5 from the field in the quarter and made a couple of beautiful passes that lead to open layups. Life was good in the Toyota Center.
The Warriors would make their runs, however. They came back to within single-digits in the second quarter, after Stephen Curry flipped over Trevor Ariza, landed on his head and went to the locker room with a head contusion. He would return in the third quarter, but the Warriors played some of their best basketball of the night with him off the floor.
When he came back, the Rockets went on another run and extended their lead back to 17. The Warriors came back again behind their bench, using lineups with Draymond Green at center and Leandro Barbosa and Andre Iguodala to pound the bench unit. The Rockets had multiple points in the game where they led by more than 20 points, and Terrence Jones somehow managed to finish as a -4.
Once the starters came back in, particularly Harden, Dwight Howard and Josh Smith, the Warriors couldn't stop them. Dwight Howard had another double-double with 14 points and 12 rebounds -- his lowest rebounding total since Game 4 against the Clippers. Smoove finished with 20 points, 6 boards, 5 assists, but he gave away six turnovers and shot 3-12 from the free throw line.
The Warriors went to Hack-a-Smoove on more than one occasion, and although Smith missed most of his free throws, the team that led the NBA in transition points couldn't score enough to warrant the strategy.
I predicted a Rockets win because this team had shown nothing to make me believe it was willing to go down with a whimper on its home court. I was right. This team has done everything it could to earn the love of its fans, and its MVP did not disappoint.
Game 5 will be much more challenging. Oracle Arena will be deafening when the Warriors try again to clinch their first NBA Finals appearance in 40 years. Dwight Howard's third quarter elbow to Bogut's head -- which could have been a Flagrant 2 but I don't think was called incorrectly -- would probably have gotten him ejected in Oakland. The Rockets must be even better.
It's still monumentally likely that the Warriors close out the Rockets at some point in the next week. But none of us -- the fans, players or coaches -- were ready to see that happen tonight. And James Harden wouldn't let it.