(Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports via Reuters/Kyle Terada)
Despite all the conversation around the Warriors' league dominance and resultant competitive inequity, they’re now locked in a 2-2 tie with the Rockets in the Western Conference finals. After being crushed to the tune of 41 points in Game 3, Houston responded in style to win back home court advantage with a 95-92 victory in Oakland on Monday.
James Harden and Chris Paul combined for 57 points in the win, but it was the Rockets’ defense that earned them the victory. They restricted the Warriors to just 12 points in the final quarter to turn a ten-point deficit into a three-point win, in the process avoiding a 3-1 deficit that would have been almost impossible to recover from.
Three keys to the game
Golden State turnovers - There’s a pretty clear correlation between the amount of turnovers the Warriors have committed and the result of the games so far this series. In Game 1 and Game 3, they turned it over just nine and eight times respectively, and won both times. The other two games, both of which they lost, they turned it over 16 and 15 times. Steve Kerr will be pleading with his team to take care of the ball in Game 5.
Getting to the stripe - Throughout the regular season, free throws were a major part of Houston’s offense; they got there 25.1 times per game, the third most in the league. In Game 3, when the Rockets got wiped off the court, they got there just 13 times. They turned this around to shoot 27 free throws compared to the Warriors' 14 in Game 4.
Klay Thompson’s offensive involvement - Steph Curry is returning to form and Kevin Durant has been consistently potent, but the third member of the Warriors three-headed offensive dragon has been noticeably absent for much of this series. After 28 points in Game 1, Klay Thompson is averaging just 10.3 points on 34.2% shooting, and has connected on just five 3-pointers in his past three games.
Matchup to watch
James Harden vs Steph Curry - This is the matchup that the Rockets need to win to win this series. Curry is clearly the weakest defender in the Warriors starting lineup, and the Rockets have been going at him hard in the past few games. Never was this more evident than in their 22-point Game 2 victory. Curry won’t be starting a whole lot of possessions on Harden, but the Rockets will probably look to force him to switch onto the likely MVP winner as often as possible. Harden has been very good without being great so far this series, but if the Rockets look to exploit this potential matchup as often as possible he could easily end up with 35-plus points.
Houston Rockets predicted starting lineup
PG - Chris Paul | SG - James Harden | SF - Trevor Ariza | PF - PJ Tucker | C - Clint Capela
Golden State Warriors predicted starting lineup
PG - Steph Curry | SG - Klay Thompson | SF - Andre Iguodala | PF - Kevin Durant | C - Draymond Green
Harden put up 68 points in the two games in Houston earlier in this series, so expect another big one from him. Aside from Game 1, he hasn’t shot it well against the Warriors, but if the Rockets can switch him onto Curry as often as possible he’ll be spending plenty of time going to the rim.
Curry himself appears dangerously close to exploding with a huge game. After scoring just 34 combined points in the first two games of the series, he has scored 63 in the past two and connected on 11 of his 25 3-point attempts.
The Warriors are favorites by the slightest of margins in this game, having been given a 1.0-point handicap. Though the game is in Houston, the Warriors' talent should enable them to get over the line.
This series has been full of swings and roundabouts so far, and home court advantage has counted little, in stark contrast to the Eastern Conference finals. The Rockets deserve plenty of credit for evening the series up at 2-2, but they won’t be able to capitalize on their home court advantage in this one. The Warriors simply have too much talent on the floor, and with the series getting a little too close for comfort, expect them to come out and put their best foot forward. If they do that, no one can beat them, not even the 65-win Rockets.
Durant has been the only Warriors star consistently putting up points, so they have plenty of room for improvement. Curry has found some touch, and Thompson’s form can go nowhere but up. It might not be a blowout, but the Warriors will be good enough to get a 109-102 win on the road.
The game will be broadcast nationally on TNT. Tip-off is at 9pm ET.