This was the look they wanted, as good of a chance as they were going to have.
Down three in the final seconds after trailing the Houston Rockets by as many as 17, Kevin Durant, maybe the greatest basketball player in the world, had a clear line of vision — no arms, no hands, between him and the rim.
“We gave him a butt-naked look,” Houston point guard Chris Paul said.
It’s a shot he makes, a moment he’s owned, the back-to-back Finals MVP ready to push the game to overtime and help the Golden State Warriors steal the game.
“That guy? Open? I thought it was overtime,” fellow point guard Austin Rivers said. “100%.”
But before anyone could exhale, before the Rockets could win, the ball found its way into Stephen Curry’s hands.
Still down three, maybe the greatest shooter ever to play the game had a clean look to push the game to overtime.
And somehow, Curry missed too.
But not pretty is exactly what the Rockets do best, using a style that’s been mocked with role players that have been discarded. And the team that looked more comfortable doing the “not pretty” stuff, Houston, held on to beat Durant, Curry and the Warriors 112-108.
The series is now tied 2-2 with Game 5 in Oakland on Wednesday.
On the back of James Harden, who pounds the ball into the court over and over again, the Rockets won so many one-on-one possessions. With his eyes locked on the defender’s feet, Harden finds the right angle to attack. Essentially, it’s Houston’s offense.
He slipped by Klay Thompson, a tremendous perimeter defender. He tortured big man Kevon Looney, leaving him glued to the court.
Harden scored 38 points, leading all scorers. But he also grabbed 10 rebounds.
P.J. Tucker, who outmuscled the Warriors in Game 3, grabbed 10 in Game 4, too. Paul scrapped for eight. Rivers came off the bench for six.
“They’ve got a lot of middle linebackers on that team,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “They’re sturdy.”
It’s a mentality they know they need to adopt to beat the Warriors.
Golden State, which got pushed to six games in the first round by the Clippers, is maybe a little vulnerable to a team with a player like Tucker, whose rhinolike style is forcing the Warriors to be sharp.
“I told Tuck, I was trying to be like him,” Paul said.
And the more Rockets trying to be like the 33-year-old bulldozer, the better.
“His talent is playing hard,” Harden said. “He brings it every night. We expect that from him. …We can count on that.”
After the loss, Kerr repeatedly said the Warriors need to play with more patience and poise, two things you’d expect the two-time defending champions to have plenty of.
Curry was better than he was in Game 3, going for 30 Monday night along with eight assists. Durant had 34. But no other Warrior scored more than 15, with Klay Thompson limited to just 11 points on 5-for-15 shooting.
It’s not uncharted territory — the Warriors and Rockets were knotted at 2-2 in last season’s conference finals.
“We’ve done this many times before,” Kerr said. “…We know what we have to do.”
But, after two wins in Houston, the Rockets know, too.
Monday, they outrebounded the Warriors by seven. They outhustled them to loose balls.
Harden, whose defense has never been a strength, even dived onto the scorers’ table to try to keep a possession alive.
“Some of the things that they did in this building helped them win, in terms of getting extra possessions, being a little more physical,” Curry said.
This is the Rockets’ formula — be tougher, be stronger, be harder, be rougher. The stuff that’s not pretty. And in those big moments, be luckier.
“It’s going to be a grind, every game we play against them,” Curry said.
His team’s formula hasn’t changed — be better, make shots, stay focused.
“Every possession is a fight,” Harden said.
And the Warriors are heading home a little bruised.