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Kurtenbach: The Rockets are providing something these Warriors haven’t faced before

OAKLAND — After going 16-1 in last year’s postseason — laying waste to the competition — the Warriors came into this season truly believing that they were head-and-shoulders above the competition.
Houston? Yeah, they’re good, but even after the Warriors lost to the Rockets (who won 65 regular season games) in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, there was no sign that Golden State actually feared the West’s No. 1 seed.
Instead, the Warriors repeated the mantra that they repeated after so many of their losses this season — in so many words: if we play good basketball, no one can beat us.
But after the Warriors lost Game 4 on Tuesday — their 28th loss in 96 games this year — it sounded like that confidence, which easily could have been construed as unflappable before the game tipped, had cracked.
Even if it was just a small crack, it’s notable.
Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry (30) looks at a replay on the last play against the Houston Rockets in the fourth quarter of Game 4 of the NBA Western Conference Finals at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, May 22, 2018. Warriors lost 92-95.(Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group) 
Warriors coach Steve Kerr has often talked about his team needing to feel “appropriate fear” for games — a manufactured sense of danger that should, in theory, sharpen the abilities of a team that has shown an incredible propensity to coast in games against lesser opponents (i.e. everyone).
Well, a game after being blown out by 41 points, the Rockets have proven themselves to be anything but a lesser opponent, and the Warriors should no longer have to manufacture that fear.
The Warriors are in no way admitting defeat in this series — they’re still supremely confident in themselves as this showdown becomes a best-of-three affair with the Rockets holding a home-court advantage — but for the first time this season, I heard the Warriors even hint that there might be facing a worthy adversary.
It’s on. And for the first time since acquiring Kevin Durant, these Warriors are facing a real threat.
“Now we’ve got to fight and really understand this is a true playoff-type experience,” Stephen Curry said, admitting (albeit in a backdoor way) that the Warriors didn’t really fear the Rockets (or any team) until Tuesday. “It’s not going to be easy against a great team like Houston.”
The final score wasn’t necessarily the thing that changed the Warriors’ tune — Golden State’s execution was so poor in the fourth quarter they could have easily pinned Tuesday’s loss on that. No, it was the Rockets’ impressive fight and the introduction of Chris Paul into this series that has the Warriors’ attention and that earned the Warriors’ respect.
The Warriors landed two big blows in Game 4: A 12-0 run to start the game and a big, late third-quarter spurt to go up 10 heading into the fourth.
The Warriors, as they have been so wont to do this season, didn’t push those advantages any further, but they were impressive runs nonetheless. A lesser team would have likely folded under after the Warriors won the third quarter 34-17.
In fact, every team that the Warriors beat by more than 10 points in the third quarter this year lost — Golden State was 30-0 in such games, including the playoffs.
Make that 30-1. The Rockets, playing slow and methodical basketball, claimed Game 4 95-92.
Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant (35) lays on the floor after being fouled by the Houston Rockets in the second 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) 
It was the roundball edition of The Tortoise and the Hare. The Rockets, in this case, are the tortoise. They want to play a drag-it-out game — hunting mismatches, attacking via isolation, working the shot clock. Their game didn’t change a bit from the opening tip to the final buzzer, and while it only netted 95 points on Tuesday, their physical defense made sure that was adequate.
The Warriors, on the other hand, were the hare. Excitable, prone for big bursts, but helter-skelter when things slowed down. They expended a ton of energy to jump out to the early lead and the third-quarter lead, but didn’t have anything left in the tank for the fourth quarter, where they failed to execute most everything in their half-court offense.
“This game was sort of trench warfare,” Steve Kerr said after Game 4. “It was just everybody grinding it out, a lot of isolation. I guess this is the modern NBA.”
But that’s just one game — two if you want to include Houston’s impressive Game 2 win. The Warriors are still absolutely in control of their own destiny, but the Game 4 loss and the questionable status of Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson has cut into that notion of control.
Add in the fact that the Rockets will host the incredibly important Game 5 Thursday — meaning they’re likely to get a boost from their crowd and the whistle — and you cut a bit deeper into that control.
Yes, this is a team that for the first time in two seasons is feeling a clear and present danger. This makes Game 3 of last year’s NBA Finals look like a mid-season game against the Jazz.
Think about it: When else has this team — with Durant in tow — been tested in a serious way? When there were real stakes attached?
Was Game 3 of this series the biggest game of the Warriors have played in the last two years? If so, Game 5 will supplant it.
Golden State Warriors’ Draymond Green (23) looks up in the third 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. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 
Heading into that contest, the Warriors are likely to be shorthanded, they’ll be coming off a game where they were physically exhausted down the stretch, and they are going to be playing on the road.
This is a big test — it’s one the Warriors can’t afford to fail, either — and while they certainly have the talent to get the job done (even without Iguodala) they frankly don’t have much practice at this kind of thing.
This is a time where that unbridled confidence — that hubris — would come in handy: rational or irrational, it always helps to have unfettered belief in a big moment.
But for the first time, I’m seeing that belief being questioned — even if only for a millisecond.
After their embarrassing Game 3 loss, the Rockets were faced with the reality that if they wanted to make it to the NBA Finals, they’d have to win three of four against the Warriors. At the time, that sounded ludicrous.
Frankly, it’s still a bit far-fetched.
But I said the same thing about the Cavaliers in their series against the Warriors in 2016. (And if you didn’t see the similarities between Game 7 of that series and Game 4 Tuesday, I can’t help you.)
The Rockets are now one-third of the way done. The Warriors can re-establish control on Thursday, but things look a little less far-fetched now.
These Rockets aren’t messing around. It’s time for the Warriors to follow suit.

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