The Rockets were miserable. They were angry and frustrated as they never had been before, sickened as they reconvened at Toyota Center to pick up the pieces.
They had been routed in this post-season even before they were demolished in Game 3 on Saturday. They were upset with losses along the way. But this one hit them harder than the others, driving them beyond even those previous rallies back to prolong their season before they would find themselves on that familiar brink of elimination again.
By now, however, they know how to ease their pain. Once again, the Rockets were their best when things were their worst, bouncing back for a start-to-finish 128-115 win over the Golden State Warriors that kept them alive in the Western Conference Finals, sending the series back to Oakland for Game 5 on Wednesday as they put up more points against the Warriors than any team has this season.
“We don’t want to go home, man,” Corey Brewer said. “I guess everybody needed to get mad. I feel like it was good for us. We got mad and we did what we needed to do.”
“We couldn’t let anybody come in here and sweep up. Somebody is going to make history. Why not us?”
None of the previous 116 teams to face an 0-3 deficit in an NBA playoff series has rallied back to win the series. With Monday’s win, however, the Rockets are 7-2 under Kevin McHale when facing elimination, winning four elimination games this season.
They never have wanted it more than after the excruciating indignity of the 35-point loss in Game 3.
“At the end of the day, 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,” Rockets guard Jason Terry said. “That’s just personal pride. For me, it is championship toughness.”
The Rockets had that nearly from the opening tip, scoring the game’s first 12 points in less than three minutes. By the time they finished the first quarter with a 45-22 lead, they had scored more points than in any quarter all season, matching the most scored by any team ever in a playoff game.
“They were embarrassed after Game 3 so you expected them to come out like that,” Warriors forward Draymond Green said. You kind of expected them to fight like the way they did.”
The Warriors came back from more than just the Rockets’ 25-point first half lead.
For all that had gone so right throughout a charmed, almost magical season, the Warriors were stunned in the first half by a moment far more frightening than the Rockets’ fast start.
Midway through the second quarter, Stephen Curry leaped to defend on a break, losing his balance and falling hard on the back of his head and neck. He remained motionless on the court before eventually he was helped to his feet and to a slow, shaky walk to the locker room.
By halftime, he had been diagnosed with a contusion of his head, allowing for a return. When he came back midway through the third quarter, the Warriors made another run until with 8 ½ minutes left, the Rockets lead was down to six.
Curry, however, was not the only star that had bounced back. James Harden had made just 3 of 16 shots on Saturday when he was every bit as trapped in the Warriors’ defense as he had been in those closing seconds of Game 2 when the game was in his hands until the ball slipped from his grasp.
He did not drive the Rockets through their fast start. That push came from Josh Smith who scored or set up 21 of the Rockets first 27 points, making all five of his shots in the first quarter when he scored 13 of his 20 points. But Harden was far sharper than he had been since leaving Oakland.
When the Warriors made their run, Harden answered again. Returning to the floor with 9:27 left and the Warriors within seven, Harden immediately nailed a step-back jumper. He drew a foul and made a pair of free throws. He dropped in a 3 from 26 feet. He finished a break. In less than three minutes, he had scored nine points, repelling the Warriors run.
With 17 fourth-quarter points, Harden finished with a career playoff-high 45 points, along with nine rebounds and five assists and redemption after his Game 3 struggles. By now, the pattern was familiar.
“I just say (it is) a will to win, a will to fight,” Rockets forward Terrence Jones said. “Guys out here, that’s a lot of tough guys on this team, especially when it comes to ending our season. I think we deserve that opportunity to give Red Nation some belief, some hope.”