Somewhere, Chris Paul is slowly shaking his head, all too aware that the Houston Rockets are never quite out of it when you think they are.
It’s too early to say the Rockets have the Golden State Warriors exactly where they want them, but Houston yanked the playoff carpet out from under the Clippers this month, becoming the ninth NBA team to come back from a 3-1 deficit and win a series.
They apparently decided that wasn’t a tough enough deficit so they lost their first three games to Golden State before waking up Monday with a 128-115 victory in the Western Conference finals. Game 5 is Wednesday at Golden State.
“I wish we were better when things were better,” said Rockets Coach Kevin McHale, channeling his inner Yogi Berra.
But the Rockets have been great when things aren’t good, and that makes them a little dangerous. Just a little. They still have to win the next three games, two of which would be at Golden State, already a shift from the Clippers series in which two of the final three were in Houston.
Plus, an important distinction, Golden State is not the Clippers. The Warriors screamed to the top seeding in the Western Conference playoffs, finishing 11 games ahead of the Clippers and Houston while going 39-2 at home.
The Rockets shrug. And try to sound fierce at the same time.
“We’re going to the lion’s den, but we feel like we can overcome,” Houston center Dwight Howard said. “We became closer as a team by going through what we went through in the last series, and we’re back in that same position. We’ve got to appreciate being able to go through this journey together … and continue to look at the big picture, which is to win a championship.”
Howard will not be suspended for Game 5 after the NBA decided to uphold his flagrant 1 foul.
Here’s a slightly unsettling thought for Golden State: Houston actually played pretty well on the road in Games 1 and 2.
The Rockets lost by a combined five points, including a 99-98 defeat in Game 2 when James Harden couldn’t get off a last-second shot, fumbling the ball after a double-team by Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
“We’ve been there twice and we’ve had opportunities to win,” Harden said after scoring 45 points in Game 4. “We’ve got to play the same way.”
A smart start would be duplicating how they won Monday. A 45-point first quarter probably won’t happen again for the Rockets, but it wouldn’t be the worst idea to prevent Golden State from getting hot early.
“You very seldom win the game in the first few minutes but you can kind of set a tone,” McHale said. “We’ve got to get ahead in Golden State and make them chase us — punch, counterpunch, and hopefully you can make the last run.”
It’s what Memphis did in winning Game 2 of the West semifinals at Golden State, 97-90. The Grizzlies forced 20 turnovers and held the Warriors’ starters to three for 22 from three-point range. It was Golden State’s first loss at Oracle Arena in three months. They are 4-1 there in the playoffs.
Curry said he would play for sure in Game 5 after falling hard in the second quarter of Game 4. He sustained a head contusion after biting on Trevor Ariza’s pump fake and bouncing off him onto the court, absorbing the blow with his head and back.
Curry passed tests for concussion symptoms and returned midway through the third quarter. He wasn’t quite MVP-caliber, finishing with 23 points on seven-for-18 shooting, but earned the respect of teammates.
“No pun intended, he is a warrior,” Warriors forward Harrison Barnes said.
Houston General Manager Daryl Morey tried to create some inspiration of his own by posting a video on his Twitter account not long after the Rockets were hammered at home by Golden State, 115-80, in Game 3. It was a clip of the 2004 American League Championship Series, specifically Dave Roberts stealing a base for the Boston Red Sox.
It was simple on the surface yet deep in sports symbolism.
Roberts’ stolen base sparked a come-from-behind rally that game against the Yankees and, three victories later, the Red Sox became the first baseball team to successfully win a series after being down three games to none.
The Warriors have their own past demons to ward off, failing to win a championship since 1975. They want to end the series Wednesday as much as the Rockets want to extend it to Game 6 in Houston.
“We just don’t want to [go] back to Houston,” Thompson said. “We want to go to the Finals for the first time in 40 years or whatever.”