HOUSTON — To stand courtside hours before Game 4 with the gilded Golden State Warriors was to grasp all that seemed impossible about the task ahead for the Houston Rockets.
There was the Warriors’ Kevin Durant, the 7-foot wunderkind, practicing his ballerino 360-degree spins and shooting and never missing. And Stephen Curry performing his usual magic act as a shooter and then asking an assistant to wrap a blue band tight around his knees so that he could slide sideways, practicing his defense. And Klay Thompson, the Warriors’ perfectionist, nailing 19 straight long-range shots, whap-whap-whap, and then narrowly missing a single shot and stalking off angrily muttering to himself.
The Rockets played the first two games of this series on the Warriors’ home court in Oakland. They lost both before they returned home and pulled out a narrow victory Saturday. That was comforting, but the prospect of beating the Warriors, the defending NBA champions and the best team in this corner of the Milky Way, twice in a row struck most as a fantasia. A writer for The Ringer already wrote a eulogy titled, “Everything Is Going Wrong for the Rockets.”
As it happened, after 48 sweaty, tumbling, raucous minutes Monday night the Rockets scored a 112-108 victory and knotted the series, 2-2.
For a New York Knicks fan, a lifelong affliction to which I cop, this series carries a déjà vu. As I watched this sweaty Rockets team slam and bang and launch mortar-shot 3-pointers against the Glam Boys from the Bay, I thought of the 1990s Knicks, which featured a single star — Patrick Ewing — and a collection of overachieving bangers who each year stretched their elegant nemesis — the Chicago Bulls — before falling tragically short.
“They’ve got a lot of middle linebackers on that team,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr noted, “and we’re like volleyball players, long and lean.”
This comparison was perhaps a touch unfair to the Rockets, who after all have a backcourt composed of the aging but artful and wily point guard Chris Paul and the league’s leading scorer, James Harden.
Harden is a transcendent talent, a scoring machine who has perfected an acrobat-on-skates step-back that lets him release long jump shots in the face of frustrated opponents. And if they overplay, he drops a dipsy-doo dribble and blows to the hoop and with his upper body musculature — he has the pecs and biceps of a linebacker — sends defenders flying.
Aesthetes find his game, with its reliance on the patient befuddling of his defenders, maddening. But he is spectacularly difficult to stop. Late Monday night, a reporter asked Durant, who played with Harden at Oklahoma City, if the black-bearded guard looked more aggressive and dangerous this season.
Durant gave the reporter his best are-you-stoned quizzical look.
“I mean, he’s been attacking since he was at Artesia High School. Nothing’s changed except the jersey.”
The Warriors are a colossus frustrated. They have three great scorers — Durant, Thompson and Curry — and fine role players and defenders, but the pitch of their orchestra is off. Durant looks dominant — you have to remind yourself that you are watching a 7-footer dropping a fallaway jumper from behind the free-throw line or splitting the defenders like a point guard and hitting a scoop shot from 10 feet — but his running mates are out of sorts.
Thompson’s shots landed an inch or 2 long or short, and he picks up too many fouls trying to lasso Harden. Curry came out more aggressively Monday, scooting to the hoop and putting up his usual elusive assortment of butterfly floaters and scoring 30 points with eight assists. By any nonheavenly measure he had a fine game. He also hit only 4 of 14 3-point attempts, an unusual failure for a player with a career 43 percent touch from long range.
“We’re rolling in and thinking, oh yeah, we’ll box,” said Draymond Green, the Warriors’ often charming rogue of a passer and rebounder. “And they’re slamming us.”
So Monday night, the Rockets had a 10-point lead with four minutes left. Then Durant hit one of those twisting fallaway shots of his, and with 19 seconds left Curry buried a 3-pointer, and the Rockets lead was shaved to 2 points. It’s as if a rodent had burrowed into the stomach of the fans.
With 11 seconds left, Durant curled around and got a pass and had a clean look at the rim. “I thought it was going to overtime, 100 percent,” Rockets guard Austin Rivers said.
Durant missed, but grabbed the rebound and tossed to Curry, who loosened a shot.
A reporter asked Houston coach Mike D’Antoni what he thought at that moment. He shook his head. “You probably don’t want to know,” he said. “It’s not pretty.”
Then he offered: “I’m groveling over there, begging a 3 not to go in.”
It did not go in. Paul grabbed the rebound, and that was that. The Rockets were a Frankenstein monster reanimated.