After Houston swept away Orlando for a second straight NBA title in 1995, Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich uttered a phrase that became words to live by for the universe.
No, it wasn’t “Never wear a tin hat in a lightning storm,” although that has merit. It was “Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.”
Yet observers can be forgiven for questioning the Warriors’ destiny. Since they walked off the floor with their second title in three years last June, the Warriors of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have been the smart-money choice to win again. Holding a 12-point lead at home Tuesday, they needed only to withstand less than 11 minutes for a commanding 3-1 lead in the Western Conference finals with Houston.
And they failed. The played nothing like the admired Warriors style. Defense became Knick-like. The extra pass became a memory. So did the 12-point lead. Isolations, awful shots and turnovers reigned. Now, heading back to Houston for Game 5 Thursday, the series has become a best-of-3. And the Rockets have two games at home.
Can the Rockets really do this, really upset the champs? Yeah, they can. They won in Oakland, ending the Warriors’ NBA record of 16 straight home playoff victories. And twice in the game they came back from double-digit deficits.
“Once the Warriors get up double figures, they generally run away with it,” one Western scout said. “Houston should be confident. They played really good defense in the fourth quarter. I don’t necessarily believe they figured something out. I think it was more Golden State getting out of what they do. Everyone talks about the way the Warriors play but they can forget and do too much isolation. The fact they were able to win on the road, the Rockets have to have confidence they can pull this off.”
The Warriors will adjust and tinker. But key Warriors have played deep into three previous seasons. Andre Iguodala’s injury has really hurt. The bench isn’t the weapon it has been in the past. And then the Rockets, who acquired Chris Paul to team with James Harden for times like these, went out and defended in the fourth quarter.
“I thought this is the highest level we’ve ever played defensively, without a doubt. Because you’re talking about maybe the best offensive team ever,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said Tuesday after the 95-92 Game 4 win.
This was the same D’Antoni who blistered his team as “soft” after a Game 3 annihilation.
“I regret it,” D’Antoni said of the “soft” comment. “They’re not soft. It’s just we didn’t play with the amount of force you need.”
Tuesday, they did. Now the Rockets control their fate. Win 2-of-3 and get a date to the Finals.
“We’re a confident team. We believe in ourselves and we went out and showed that we can win anywhere,” said Houston’s Trevor Ariza.
But so can the Warriors.
“It was there for our taking. … We have to focus on winning two of the next three,” Warrior Klay Thompson said.
During an all-out war.
“Houston can score with Golden State,” another scout assessed. “They can get 120 in a game. Iguodala being out has hurt Golden State more than you’d think. Golden State had that game in hand and started (messing) around. They’ve got to tighten up their defense. They’re giving up clear path driving lanes. They were playing like the series was over. They had a 10-point lead then silly turnovers and poor shot selection opened the gate for Houston. They had them on the mat and let them up.”
So you’re forgiven if this time you truly underestimate the champions.
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