OAKLAND — The Warriors might want to reconsider their playoff slogan after a 95-92 loss to the Rockets in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals Tuesday night.
You know the slogan — it’s been emblazoned everywhere over the last few weeks: Strength in Numbers.
Having strength in numbers would seem to indicate that the Warriors have a deep, solid bench that can provide a positive impact in every game.
That was the case in years past. That was the case earlier this season, even. But in Game 4, it was obvious that the Warriors do not have “Strength in Numbers”.
And, as such, this series is tied at 2-2 and the Rockets have home-court advantage for what has become a three-game series.
With Andre Iguodala sidelined with a left knee contusion Tuesday, the Warriors had an eight-man rotation in a pivotal contest, and that lack of depth manifested in the fourth quarter against a Houston team hellbent on exhausting Golden State for the first three periods.
The plan worked.
And it highlighted how much the Warriors missed the injured veteran forward.
Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green (23) reacts to an offensive foul called against him during their game against the Houston Rockets in the third quarter of Game 4 of the NBA Western Conference finals at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, May 22, 2018. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
Warriors coach Steve Kerr played Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green for the entirety of the third quarter of Game 4. That move that paid dividends at the time, as a patented Curry flurry gave Golden State a 10-point lead, but it came back to sting in the fourth as all four players — the Warriors’ four most important players — looked exhausted in the final frame.
Draymond Green, who played all but two minutes and 36 seconds of Tuesday’s game, had his hands on his knees during the middle of a defensive possession early in the fourth. Still, he finished the quarter. He had to.
“Fatigue is not an excuse for either side, so that will never creep into your mind,” Warriors guard Stephen Curry said.
But it certainly crept into the box score.
Golden State scored 12 points in the fourth quarter. No, that’s not a typo — they scored 12 points in the final quarter of a putaway game.
Meanwhile the Rockets, happy to see the pace of the game slow down to a slow crawl, took advantage of the Warriors’ exhaustion by playing physical defense and hitting big shots down the stretch to claim a three-point win.
“This is the highest level we’ve played defensively, without a doubt,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said. “They got a little tired in the fourth quarter, and that’s because they felt us for three quarters…That’s what the formula is, and we’ll see if we can do that when we get to Houston.”
I haven’t seen the Warriors that tired late in a game since the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. Unsurprisingly, the result of that game and Tuesday’s were the same. (It’s actually rather frightening how similar those quarters were.)
Golden State Warriors’ head coach Steve Kerr talks with Stephen Curry (30) in the first quarter of Game 4 of the NBA Western Conference finals against the Houston Rockets at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, May 22, 2018.
Had the Warriors won on Tuesday, their effort in the fourth quarter would have been deemed heroic by some — exhausted and facing a suddenly relentless Rockets team, the Warriors found the will to win.
Instead, the narrative out of this game was that they choked it away.
Is that fair? No. But truth be told, it was a bit of a choke job. No matter how tired the Warriors might have been, the Rockets were tired too. They used only seven players and four of their starters played 41 minutes or more. But they executed while the Warriors flailed around for the final 12 minutes.
The Warriors had control of the game and while the Rockets deserve a ton of credit for their play — Houston didn’t steal away the contest, the Warriors gave it to them.
“I felt like in the fourth quarter we just ran out of gas,” Kerr said. “But yeah, they just outplayed us in the fourth and they earned it.”
Iguodala provides so many great things for the Warriors — his elite defense and pace-setting abilities were missed as the Rockets climbed back from both a 12-0 opening deficit and the 10-point hole the Warriors’ late third-quarter run produced.
But more than anything else, the Warriors missed having a wing who could give them 20, 25, even 30 solid, competent minutes on Tuesday.
The Warriors started Kevon Looney in Iguodala’s place in Game 4 and the team’s great start appeared to validate that decision. But after Looney found himself in foul trouble, it was clear that the Warriors had no one else to go to on the bench.
Jordan Bell — who had played 50 total minutes in the postseason before Tuesday, most of them in garbage time — was pressed into 18 minutes of action in Game 4. Most of them were good, but there’s a reason why the Warriors weren’t giving him that kind of run in the first three games of the series.
Nick Young was downright unplayable Tuesday. In the one game the Warriors really needed Young to step up, he was wayward — lost on defense and irrational on offense. Still, with Iguodala out, he had to play 12:30.
And Shaun Livingston, who had been so solid for the Warriors in the first three games of this series, could not take his game to another level on Tuesday. The Rockets’ were extra physical with the guard in Game 4 and he scored only four points and was a game-worst minus-15.
Outside of two minutes from Quinn Cook, those three guys comprised the Warriors’ bench.
Even with the shortened rotations in the postseason, that kind of bench play is simply not enough in a critical game like Tuesday’s. Not against a team as good as the Rockets.
Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry (30) lays up a shot past Houston Rockets’ James Harden (13) during the first quarter of Game 4 of the NBA Western Conference Finals at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, May 22, 2018. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
And you can’t even pin this loss on Kerr — the man who handled the rotations. What was he going to do? Play Cook longer? Go to JaVale McGee? And no one in their right mind would have advocated for him to sub anyone out in the third quarter when the Warriors were opening up their lead — you don’t stop punching when you’re about to land what you think is a knock-out blow.
No, Kerr was stuck between a rock and a hard place Tuesday, and he ended up crushed. The Warriors’ roster depth was thin before Iguodala was out, and now with the point-forward sidelined (we have no idea when he’ll be back), it’s almost indiscernible.
“We weren’t really able to make many subs,” Kerr said, making the understatement of the evening.
Perhaps this is why the Warriors haven’t made any pushes early in games — instead, they wait until the third to go on their run. If they push early, they naturally get complacent — take their foot off the proverbial pedal — and more often than not, the opponent works their way back into the game. Then they have to make another push.
And those pushes — as spectacular as they are — are taxing.
The Warriors made two pushes on Tuesday. They didn’t have enough energy to make a third. And that means we have at least two more games left in this series.