The Houston Rockets desperately needed to beat the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night. While they’re a team that exudes confidence stemming from the belief that they’re uniquely designed to take down the two-time defending champions, no one wants to fall into a 3-0 hole at any point in a series. The good news was their Western Conference Semifinal matchup shifted to Houston on Saturday night, and by the time the dust settled, the Rockets picked up a crucial Game 3 win, a 126-121 victory that inched them one game closer to evening up the series.
Despite his bad eye — well, at least his bad looking eye — James Harden was in his bag early. From the jump, the reigning MVP made it a point to attack, even hitting Steph Curry with a vicious step back that made the Warriors star go flying.
Speaking of flying, Clint Capela had the block of the postseason so far during the first half. Andre Iguodala saw a lane to attack the basket and went up for a one-handed jam. Capela had other ideas, meeting Iggy at the summit and using two hands to deny the grizzled veteran.
The biggest thing for Houston was getting on an extended run to erase an early Golden State lead. At one point in the first quarter, the Warriors were up 20-11. We’ve seen over the years that the Dubs are great at getting a team at arm’s length and keeping them there for an entire game, overwhelming opponents with talent and the ability to execute for 48 minutes.
The Rockets are not a team that gets easily rattled, especially in their own building against the Warriors (well, unless there’s a big argument about what is and is not a foul that leads to an audit that goes to the league). Despite falling behind early, Houston kept its collective composure and ripped off a 27-7 run between the first and second quarters, one which put the Warriors behind the eight ball.
By the time the two teams went to the locker room, the Rockets had a 58-49 lead behind a 20-point first half from Eric Gordon. Harden pitched in 13, while Capela nearly had a double-double, going for 10 points and nine rebounds. Golden State, meanwhile, leaned heavily on the trio of Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, and Curry. The two marksmen went for 12 points each, while Green’s ability to stuff the stat sheet was on display, putting up 13 points, five rebounds, and five assists.
For the most part, the third quarter was much of the same. Houston did what it could to keep Golden State from really getting into the game, turning to its bread and butter: jacking up shots from behind the three-point line. Harden, Chris Paul, and even Iman Shumpert all found ways to punish the Dubs from deep.
But the Warriors have Durant, who is able to level the playing field merely by stepping onto it. The two-time defending NBA Finals MVP had a 17-point frame, with nine of his points coming from the free throw line. By the time the period ended, the Rocket lead heading into the final frame was only four.
The seemingly inevitable happened early on in the fourth. Durant scored all 10 Warriors points on a 10-2 run to start the quarter, and by the time Mike D’Antoni called time out to settle his team down, Golden State held a 94-93 lead.
If you know anything about these two teams, though, you will not be surprised to learn that Houston found answers to Durant busting out the flamethrower, and for the remainder of the game, it was close and hotly contested. Each punch had a counterpunch, each move on the chessboard was immediately answered. This series has been about the various petty grievances each team has with the other, or with the referees, or with the NBA, but Saturday night was about which team was better at basketball, and if I may editorialize for a moment, it was a joy.
Both teams made all the plays you need to win games. P.J. Tucker was inhaling rebounds, or Austin Rivers had a chase down block, or Iguodala consumed a Harden step back triple attempt. Guys did whatever they could to seal this one, flying all over the place and working to tilt any 50/50 play ever so slightly in their favor.
The closers went for broke, but the Currys and the Hardens and the Durants and the Pauls didn’t close the game. The biggest shot down the stretch looked like it was going to be hit by Iguodala, who nailed a cold blooded triple with less than a minute remaining.
Harden hit a pair of free throws to tie it up, Durant missed a jumper on the following possession, and on the final trip down the floor, Paul was tied up by Thompson. Houston won the jump ball, but it was all for naught, and the game went to overtime.
The extra period featured the champs going ice cold from the field and the Rockets throwing haymaker after haymaker, the biggest of which appearing to be a Harden triple with less than a minute remaining to put Houston up by six.
But on the ensuing possession, Durant was fouled on a triple, slicing the lead to three with 47.6 seconds remaining. In response, Harden made something happen, darting to the rim and finishing a layup through contact. The game ended after an absolutely stunning missed dunk by Curry, which was followed by Golden State opting not to foul and letting the Rockets run out the clock.
“It’s gonna be a fight,” Harden said to Lisa Salters of ESPN at the game’s conclusion. “Every possession, every game.”
Harden certainly fought all night, leading his team with 41 points, nine rebounds, and six assists in the victory. Gordon contributed 30 points with 7-for-14 shooting from deep, while Capela and Tucker battled down low, combining for 20 points and 22 rebounds. For Golden State, Durant’s 46 points and Green’s triple-double (19 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists) led the way, but between seven bench points and Curry, Iguodala, and Thompson going for 17, 16, and 16 points, respectively, it wasn’t enough.
The teams will have to bounce back from this one quickly, as Game 4 in Houston will take place on Sunday. If that one was anywhere near as good as Game 3, we’re all in for a treat.