James Harden went ballistic when the Houston Rockets needed him to, but his superlative 45-point effort in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals will only represent a momentary impediment to the Golden State Warriors' championship conquest.
With the Rockets' season on the line, Harden led Houston to a 128-115 win, flipping his internal switch with frightening ease and tying Stephen Curry for the league lead with his second 40-point outing of the postseason. The 45 points also represent a new playoff career high for the MVP runner-up, who added nine rebounds and five assists to a staggering final line.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, Harden joined LeBron James, Patrick Ewing and Michael Jordan as the only players to finish a playoff game with at least 45 points, nine boards and five dimes in the last 30 years.
Two days removed from scoring 17 points on 3-of-16 shooting during a 35-point loss, Harden's shot chart assumed a much happier form, according to NBA.com:
"When you have a tough time, you're not very happy with everything," Rockets head coach Kevin McHale told reporters after the win, according to CBSSports.com's James Herbert. "He was extremely unhappy yesterday, and took it out [on them]. But that's what you gotta do. You gotta take it out on them."
Thirty-three of Harden's 45 points came after halftime, and he credited the rapid revival to the mindset that perpetuated his greatness all season long.
"Just being aggressive," Harden told ESPN's Doris Burke during his on-court postgame interview. "You know, mixing it up a little bit, moving my body more. Trying to get my teammates open shots, and working off that."
Thanks to Harden, the Rockets are now 4-0 in elimination games, and their season has temporarily been saved.
But that number isn't going to hold. It can't. Eventually, there's going to be a notch in the loss column, and the enormity of the task at hand will sink in. In league history, 110 teams have been where the Rockets were—facing a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series. According to WhoWins.com, all 110 have walked away losers.
Despite Harden's outburst and the supporting cast's otherworldly three-point shooting, the Warriors—even with a dinged-up Curry—aren't in the business of being on the wrong side of history.
Curry reiterated that he escaped the scary tumble unscathed, per CBS Sports NBA:
"The Warriors, barring a damaging late diagnosis, should have Curry at full strength when they try to close the series in Game 5 Wednesday in Oakland," ProBasketballTalk.com's Dan Feldman wrote. "Houston, which overcame a 3-1 deficit against the Clippers last round, is trying to become the first team to win a series after trailing 3-0."
The Rockets have demonstrated all season long that they're capable of packing tremendous punches on offense. Monday night was no different.
Beyond Harden, the Rockets drilled 17 threes, which represents a new franchise playoff record. Additionally, all five starters finished in double figures, and they each got there by the end of the third quarter.
Josh Smith hearkened back to Game 6 against the Los Angeles Clippers (when he scored 19 points, including 14 in the fourth quarter) and poured in 20 points on 7-of-8 shooting (3-of-4 from three); Trevor Ariza (17 points) sprung to life following back-to-back seven-point contests; and Terrence Jones and Dwight Howard checked in with 14 points apiece.
It was a perfect storm of bottomless buckets on a night when the Rockets demanded across-the-board excellence.
But it's too little, too late.
Golden State stood tall after Curry returned in the middle of the third quarter, and even cut the Rockets lead to as few as six points with 8:23 remaining in the fourth. Over the final 12 minutes, Golden State outscored Houston, 31-29, and Klay Thompson put forth his best individual performance of the Western Conference Finals—scoring 24 points while drilling six threes.
As a team, the Warriors rattled home a postseason franchise-record 20 threes and became the third team in league history to achieve that feat, according to Basketball-Reference.com. The other two were the 2011 Dallas Mavericks and 1996 Seattle SuperSonics, each of which advanced to the NBA Finals.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Houston and Golden State set the bar for voluminous postseason scoring from beyond the arc:
And ultimately, the Warriors have numbers on their side.
During the regular season, Golden State never lost more than two games in a row. In order to choke the series away, they'd need to duplicate that total in the span of a week.
The Warriors are also headed back to Oracle Arena for Game 5, where they've routinely ripped opponents throughout the playoffs. With nearly three rounds in the books, Golden State is 6-1 at home and has outscored opponents by 7.1 points in those games.
On the road, Houston is 2-5 and has been defeated by an average of 8.7 points per game. With the Warriors holding opponents to 43.3 percent shooting and 93 points per game at Oracle, Houston will need to summon bearded excellence and correspondingly great play from its supporting cast if it wants to stand the slightest chance.
Entering Game 5, this much is clear: The Warriors appear to have dodged their biggest bullet. Curry was merely rattled, and while his return didn't spark a comeback, it maintained hope moving forward.
Golden State's resolve was shaken for a few brief moments, and it would have been easy for the Warriors to get enveloped by panic during a game marred by bruises and defensive breakdowns.
But now they're re-focused.
"We just don't want to come back to Houston," Thompson said, according to the Bay Area News Group's Diamond Leung.
The Rockets' showing was admirable, but sooner or later, they'll be reminded their fate has been sealed since going down 3-0.
Golden State will inevitably bounce back, and in typical Warriors fashion, Game 4 will be an anomalous blip on the team's radar as it strives to capture some shiny new jewelry to confirm its championship status.
Alec Nathan covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @AlecBNathan.