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James Harden, Chris Paul Carry Rockets to Crucial Game 4 Win vs. Warriors

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistMay 23, 2018

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 22:  Chris Paul #3 and James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets during the game against the Golden State Warriors in Game Four of the Western Conference Finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs on May 22, 2018 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Noah Graham/Getty Images

The Houston Rockets are in the driver's seat in the Western Conference Finals.

Houston went into Oracle Arena for Tuesday's Game 4 and exited with a 95-92 victory over the Golden State Warriors, stealing back home-court advantage after evening the series at two games apiece. James Harden (30 points, four assists and three steals) and Chris Paul (27 points and four assists) were both brilliant in arguably the most important game of either All-Star's career.

Stephen Curry (28 points and six rebounds) and Kevin Durant (27 points and 12 rebounds) spearheaded the Warriors' attack, but Trevor Ariza altered Klay Thompson's potential game-tying shot in the final seconds before Curry missed a three at the buzzer.

       

Harden and Paul's Playoff Legacies Revived by Heroic Performances

Harden and Paul aren't working with Michael Jordan and LeBron James-esque playoff legacies, but Tuesday's performance struck a serious blow to narratives suggesting they can't come through in the biggest moments.

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

24 points. Poster on Draymond. Harden’s playing out of this world in Game 4 🚀 https://t.co/jHlMop5sFs

NBA on ESPN @ESPNNBA

2nd quarter: Harden & Paul: 9-17 FG, 29 points Warriors: 7-24 FG, 18 points https://t.co/ggGFk1Jb9y

Harden's playoff knocks are as follows: He shot 2-of-11 during a 39-point loss to a San Antonio Spurs team playing without Kawhi Leonard to end last year's run, he scored fewer than 10 points in three of the five games in the 2012 NBA Finals as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and he shot 2-of-11 in the last game of the 2015 Western Conference Finals against the Warriors.

As for Paul, this is the first time he has ever made it to the conference finals. His Los Angeles Clippers memorably blew a 3-1 series lead to Harden's Rockets in 2015.

Beating this Warriors team on the way to a championship would go a long way toward erasing those missteps, and they took turns dominating on the road Tuesday.

Harden put the Rockets on his back in the second quarter after they fell behind by double digits in the first, mixing in step-back threes and dribble-drives. He also emphatically slammed in Draymond Green's face, crossed up Curry and picked Durant's pocket.

SportsCenter @SportsCenter

JUST. NASTY. https://t.co/HQZ3Wz7Y2W

Paul took over in the second half with his silky smooth drives and timely assists, while also stretching the defense with five triples.

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

CP3. THAT PASS. https://t.co/ESImlj6hbr

While Eric Gordon (14 points) is the one who pushed Houston's lead to five with a three-pointer with less than three minutes remaining, Harden and Paul each harassed Curry and other Warriors shooters down the stretch to overcome a double-digit deficit in the fourth.

Playoff chokers don't play like that with their season hanging in the balance. Harden and Paul each delivered in a monster way.

        

Warriors' Late-Game Choke Should Have Fans Worried

The Warriors are vulnerable for the first time in the Durant era.

This is the first time Golden State has lost multiple games in a playoff series since Durant joined them ahead of the 2016-17 season, and Tuesday's loss came on its home floor after it built a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter.

The issues started before opening tip, when the Warriors announced Andre Iguodala was out for Tuesday's contest with a left lateral leg contusion. As if that wasn't enough, Thompson went to the locker room in the second quarter with a knee injury and struggled upon his return, finishing with only 10 points on 4-of-13 shooting.

Chris Herring @Herring_NBA

Klay looks so bad

Iguodala's absence and Thompson's off night caused Green to force the issue, and he missed a dunk and committed five turnovers.

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

Rough night for Draymond 😂 https://t.co/ZU3T63jhGb

SB Nation @SBNation

Draymond looking like he still hasn't recovered from that Harden poster https://t.co/tPv8hwsXxs

While Durant and Curry carried the offense for extended stretches, each looked fatigued by the end and were a combined 19-of-50 (38 percent) from the field.

Houston's ability to hone in on Curry and Durant is what should concern Warriors fans the most, as the Rockets prevented Golden State's two dominant forces from taking over down the stretch and consistently challenged their looks.

If Iguodala and Thompson aren't healthy and Green is forcing the issue, the Warriors become far more vulnerable, especially against a Rockets team with two All-Stars of its own to counteract Durant and Curry.

           

Warriors Need Iggy to Steady the Ship

There is one thing that can minimize that worry—the return of Iguodala.

While the University of Arizona product is often overlooked because of the four All-Stars surrounding him—just ask Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni—he is a veteran presence and steadying force when the Warriors start to play out of control like they did down the stretch Tuesday.

Bleacher Report NBA @BR_NBA

D’Antoni on Iggy being out: "So now they only have four All-Stars instead of five…” (via @957thegame) https://t.co/OAl8ZxEgsN

Not only is the 2015 NBA Finals MVP a proven postseason performer who helps space the floor as part of the "Hamptons 5" lineup, he is someone who can rotate onto Harden for critical possessions and prevent him from going off like he did in the second quarter of Game 4.

That defensive versatility takes some of the pressure off Durant and Curry on that end, saving their legs for better shooting performances than what they mustered Tuesday.

Iguodala is a primary reason the "Hamptons 5" tallied a plus-minus of plus-8.1 through the first 13 playoff games, per NBA.com. Golden State needs to lean on the formidable lineup now more than ever with eventual elimination a real possibility heading back to Houston for a swing game.

           

What's Next?

The series shifts back to Houston for Thursday's Game 5, where the victor will be a single win away from the NBA Finals. If the Rockets take care of business on their home floor for the remainder of the series, the Western Conference will send a team other than the Warriors to the Finals for the first time since 2014.

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