HOUSTON—On Monday night, basketball inevitability was put to the test. Golden State’s 3-0 series lead over Houston in the Western Conference finals had amounted to a clear verdict: no team in NBA history has ever come back to win a playoff series after facing such a deficit. The Rockets responded to their doomed circumstances with a first-quarter beatdown unlike any the Warriors have seen this postseason. It took all of 12 minutes for Houston to pour out 45 points, a quarter-long showcase of few misses, including just one errant shot in nine attempts from beyond the arc.
"They made everything," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "They won the game in the first quarter. They were ready to play. Probably more ready than we were. We were on our heels. They were making shots from all over. They were obviously coming out with some fire and played extremely well. It's tough to come back from 23 down after one quarter."
A Rockets team buoyed by that kind of preposterous shooting can beat anyone. That much was confirmed by the game’s 128-115 final verdict, an act of defiance that extended Houston’s playoff lives.
History still favors Golden State. Yet within Game 4 came a reminder of just how fragile the business of championship contention is and how dangerous the game of basketball can be. With just under six minutes to play in the second quarter, the Rockets accelerated into transition while a few Warriors scrambled to stop them. Among them was Stephen Curry, the league’s reigning MVP and the best player on its best team. Curry trailed behind the play as it developed and didn’t catch up until Trevor Ariza had made a catch deep in the restricted area.
Curry leapt. Ariza ducked.
The Toyota Center gasped as Curry rolled over Ariza’s shoulder and dropped, with his full weight and momentum, on his neck, head, and shoulder.
"I felt like I was in the air for a long time," Curry said. "You try and brace yourself. And once I hit the ground, I hear voices from trainers telling me to take my time and not rush it, not rush myself getting up."
Golden State’s title aspirations flickered. Curry’s shooting, passing, and ball handling give the Warrior offense its spark; the team’s basic structure isn’t meant to sustain Curry’s extended absence. His fall was full of terrifying potential. Contact to the neck from the right height and at the wrong angle could have ended Curry’s series or worse. That possibility lingered as a dazed Curry was treated on the court.
[daily_cut.nba]"It's a bad feeling," Curry said. "You try to make a play on the ball thinking he was going up for a layup, and once you see that the situation changes. Immediately you're in the air, got no control over yourself, and it could have been a lot worse."
Ultimately, Curry was able to walk from the court with minimal assistance. He was guided first to the visiting locker room, where he underwent a series of tests for compliance with the NBA's concussion protocols. Halftime came and went without clearance from the Warriors' team doctors. To return from a fall like Curry's is not a matter of toughness, but diligence.
"I was taking my time, to be honest with you, because I wanted to make sure I was okay and not put myself in danger for the rest of the series if it wasn't right for me to go back out there," Curry said. "I listened to all the advice and did all the tests I needed to do and stayed patient with it. Once I got the sign-off from the athletic trainers and the team doctors, obviously I wanted to play, but I wanted to make sure the process was gone about the right way so there would be no second-guessing once I got back on the floor."
Curry's surprising return to the floor came midway through the third quarter. The game had turned in his absence; Golden State had whittled Houston's lead from 25 to 10 by the intermission, and at the time of Curry's re-entry the Warriors trailed by single digits. A runaway game had slowed to the point that Golden State, committed to reanimating its defense after that disastrous first quarter, could conceivably catch up.
They never quite did. Momentum in the game teetered throughout the second half. On five separate occasions the Rockets' lead hit single digits. Each time, Houston responded with a protective run of its own. James Harden (45 points on 22 shots, 7-of-11 three-pointers, nine rebounds, five assists), in particular, was indomitable. He pushed past and shot over Harrison Barnes, Klay Thompson, or any Warriors defender switched into his way whenever the game seemed to turn. Some of his shots were tough, improbable attempts willed through the net. Others were the product of perfectly executed moves with and without the ball.
"[It was a] combination of just moving my body, setting screens, cutting, coming off when I got an opportunity, coming off hard to attack, and ultimately just being aggressive," Harden said. "Taking my shot when I had it and mixing it up."
Harden alone was responsible for 33 of the Rockets' 59 second-half points. Yet with Curry returned, Klay Thompson's accuracy renewed, Draymond Green again terrific, and the rest of Golden State's supplementary scorers falling into line, Houston needed more. It found enough between Josh Smith's early shot-making, Dwight Howard's posting throughout, and Terrence Jones' late punch off of broken possessions.
The outcome of this game was well in doubt, even after the Rockets appeared to square things away in the first quarter and Curry's injury seemed likely to remove any remaining ambiguity. It's to Houston's great credit that even the most difficult stretches were managed so deftly. The shooting won't hold. The spirit that helped create those shots and earn the stops between, however, has proven to be far more sustainable.
"I think at the end of the day," Jason Terry said, "when this season is over, you are going to look back on this team and that's what we are going to say we hung our hat on: Our ability to fight through adversity and never say die."
The entirety of NBA precedent suggests that end is still coming for Terry and the Rockets sooner than they would like. Yet in those chilling moments following Curry's fall, the basketball world was reminded of the limits of assumption. Every possession of every game holds the power to change the fates of all involved.