The pain of losing a player like Andre Iguodala to injury—as the Warriors did for Game 4 against the Rockets—is that his minutes are not just his own. They are a pillar at the center of a much larger structure, and to remove them requires that something else bear weight in their place. The costs of that exchange, then, transcend Iguodala. They demand the rebalancing of an entire playing rotation. They force the most talented team into the league into a position of compromise. That Golden State fields four All-NBA-worthy players does not eliminate their need for a sharp and reliable fifth.
Consider the alternatives. Kevon Looney joined the starting lineup on Tuesday and played his 26 minutes to a virtual draw. Nick Young and Shaun Livingston disappointed with their worst showings of the series. Jordan Bell had his moments, but even on his best nights carries with him all the liability of a first-year player. A Quinn Cook cameo accomplished little. Four more centers—David West, JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia, and Damian Jones—did not and likely will not appear. By dedicating so much of its roster to situational bigs, Golden State has shrunk its allowance for underperforming role players. The best basketball team in the world has, in case of injury, made itself reliant on the viability of Swaggy P.
This is how losing Iguodala subtly nudges the Warriors out of character. It can make a coach do crazy things, like play Looney and Bell together for three minutes against elite competition. It demands more playmaking from Livingston, who responded by turning the ball over four times in Game 4—his worst mark all season. The concessions come in layers. It's not just that the Warriors miss Iguodala's individual defense, which has held James Harden, Chris Paul, and Eric Gordon to a combined 6-of-19 (32%) shooting in this series, per NBA.com. It's that without Iguodala, Golden State loses some of its capacity to control its matchups. That Houston wants no part of attacking Iguodala would otherwise complicate the seek-and-destroy rhythm of the Rockets' offense.
Instead, Houston will run ball screen after ball screen to single out either Looney or Stephen Curry—both of whom are vulnerable in one-on-one situations for very different reasons. Harden seems to prefer picking on Curry, whom he can muscle to the rim, while Paul sets his sights on Looney. Iguodala's injury gave Paul all the more opportunity in Game 4, playing a part in his 27-point eruption. Every minute that Iguodala plays keeps a lesser defender out of the crosshairs, making Houston that much more predictable in the process.
Golden State's primary means to compensate for those deficits is to stretch its best players even further. It speaks to the luxury of the Warriors that while every other team fights for its survival, they can usually afford to mind minutes. Iguodala grants them that. Without him, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green will trend toward the mid-40s, as they did in Game 4, while Curry is worn down by the sheer number of possessions he is forced to defend.
Even if you skipped out on the entire regular season, you could know for a fact that the Rockets are formidable based solely on how hard they make the Warriors work. It requires so much focus and effort to gain an edge against them that the mounting minutes become taxing. There will always be diminishing returns for players rounding into their 40th minute of the night, no matter their talent. Curry is the best shooter in the history of the sport, but he's not above settling for a shot now and then. Green will be a Hall of Famer because of his motor and intelligence, but even he rim-checks a dunk when jumping off tired legs. The Rockets force the Warriors into high-leverage minutes and Iguodala's injury stretches them to the point that the defending champions can be rivaled.
Officially, Iguodala is listed as questionable for Game 5. He seems somewhat more likely to play considering what's at risk: Should the Rockets win on Thursday night, they would put the Warriors on the brink of elimination for the first time since 2016. Expect Golden State to do everything in its power to avoid that possibility.
Beneath their bravado, the Warriors know that the Rockets are a different kind of opponent. They withstood a third-quarter explosion from Curry and rallied to win. Their defense handcuffed Golden State down the stretch with smart, comprehensive execution. They were responsible for that rarest of NBA occurrences: the game that the Warriors fought earnestly to win but couldn't. The series—and perhaps the entire playoffs—shifted on the spot.