This was almost going to be remembered as the Ian Clark game.
The lightly-used Golden State guard got a little run with Stephen Curry sidelined and put up nine points in the final quarter, including hitting a lay-up with 10.6 seconds left that capped a Warriors comeback and had them up one. It looked like the Warriors were going to steal one on the road where they were outplayed most of the night.
But James Harden had one last shot.
With no timeouts, he brought the ball up the court, drove left on Andre Iguodala, spun back to the middle while making the veteran (and never going to be called in this situation) push-off to create space, then nailed the game-winning step-back jumper. Ballgame. (Well, it was ballgame after Draymond Green dribbled the ball off his foot killing the Warriors’ chance at the last shot.)
Harden hit the biggest shot of the Rockets’ season, and the Rockets bench reaction was… underwhelming.
The Houston Rockets brought by far their best effort of the series and beat the Warriors 97-96 to make this a 2-1 series with Game 4 in Houston Sunday. If I were a betting man, I’d put money on Curry being back for that one.
That said, the Rockets have avoided a sweep and, to hear them tell it after the game, given themselves a chance in this series.
They did it with a gritty, ugly, high effort game — everything that had been missing from their first two losses in the Bay Area. The Rockets forced 14 turnovers and turned that into 20 points. Harden was finding Howard inside early, plus getting his own buckets — Harden finished with 35 points, nine assists, and eight rebounds. Houston stretched that lead out to 17 points in the second quarter and seemed to be in command. But it was not going to be that easy, the Warriors chipped away at the lead — then Clark went off in the fourth.
The Rockets went cold down the stretch and made some head-scratching plays — Trevor Ariza made three bad passes — but they were able to get enough stops when they needed it most. Then they got the Harden shot and the win.
The Rockets got points from the front line, with Donatas Motiejunas scoring 14 and Howard finishing with 13. Michael Beasley added a scoring punch with a dozen points off the bench, including some key free throws late.
The question is, can the Rockets replicate this energy (and, frankly play better if Curry does return)? All season the Rockets have been the poster children of inconsistency this past season, good efforts were followed by games where they looked like the zombies in The Walking Dead. Howard said postgame the Rockets need to treat Game 4 like a Game 7. He’s right. Because if they are down 3-1 heading back to Oracle, they can book their plane flights to Mexico for summer vacation.