The game was nearly over, the Warriors leading by 12 with 3 1/2 minutes left. They had finally parted ways with the Rockets, leading a game that never had a double-digit lead until the fourth quarter by 16 with 4 1/2 minutes left.
The Rockets, playing shorthanded in the second half of a straight game and fifth game in seven nights, were doing very well.
Then, Rockets rookie Tari Eason hopped into a passing lane and took off the other side, finishing a slam and sparking another run. For a moment, the Rockets trailed within seven with barely enough time to believe a comeback was possible.
The Warriors ended that hope, as they had turned the game around to start the fourth quarter, with a 121-108 win again on Monday that ended their 11-game losing streak and extended their streak against the Rockets 10 games from their days as postseason foes in the Western Conference. They looked a lot like the champions they became again last spring who have been on display so many times at the Toyota Center in their rise to the top of the NBA.
Even the Rockets, however, looked different; different from previous meetings with the Warriors this season, different from when the family started.
For now, that should be enough.
“I feel like we made some really big improvements, until we give up,” said Eason, who started with Alperen Sengun ill and had 21 points, 12 rebounds and four steals. “Sometimes, I feel like at the beginning of the season, we would have faced adversity coming out of the half, we would have given up. Hats off to the Warriors. They are a championship team. They ran… down the stretch. But I really think we are going in the right direction.
“We can compete with anyone. We undoubtedly beat the best team (the Celtics), obviously lost against the defending champions. We have beaten some very competitive teams in the past. When we’re connected and playing together, we can play with the best. We just have to keep building.
The climb back to top contender status in the Warriors’ pursuit remains enormous. The Warriors, for all their struggles, have shown how wide the gap is. But more than showing a determination to fight back, the Rockets family has rebuilt a determination to fight, to play tough, in the first place.
Their poor shooting — they hit 10-of-36 3s on Monday and just 33.9 percent at home — removes most of the margin for error. They still make plenty of mistakes, with 18 turnovers on Monday leading to 26 Warriors points. But the Rockets’ goal was to be a tough team that would challenge even the best of teams. They weren’t close most of the season, but now they’re back to that.
“For sure. We were struggling right after the All-Star break. It flipped,” Rockets coach Stephen Silas said. “It was guys who played together, guys who played hard and found some success with a few wins. We have to take it on the road with us.
“It would have been nice to find victory, but you see the growth of our group, you see what they could be, you see little glimpses every now and then of what they really could be. I’m proud that they are continuing at this point in the season… to fight like they do and not let go of the rope. They are disappointed when we lose. And this is a good place to be for a team that is rebuilding itself.”
This will be tested on a road trip that Silas called “a beast.” The Rockets take on the Grizzlies, who are the epitome of NBA wrestling, over two games with Ja Morant expected to return from his suspension. The Cavaliers, the best defensive team in the NBA, will play before completing a back-to-back against a Knicks team that will have had three days off, before ending up against Brooklyn.
“You definitely see improvement,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said. “Clearly, they are better. They are beating good teams. And it makes sense. They have talented guys who are gaining a lot of experience. They are clearly much better now than they were at the start of the season and that is the whole point of putting the youngsters in the fire. You know it’s going to be painful, but it’s the only way to see that progression.
They showed enough to prompt the Warriors to shift gears in the fourth quarter. The Warriors led by four, then scored 24 points in the first six minutes of the quarter, removing the turnovers that had slowed them all night, and running their offense in the manner of the Rockets’ makeshift formation on the floor, sans Sengun ( illness) and Jae’ Sean Tate (injury management), could not.
Before ralliing on a late charge, the Rockets hit 7 of 18 shots in the fourth quarter with three turnovers in eight minutes as the Warriors opened up their lead larger.
“I was concerned about the energy we were going to have going into the fourth quarter because the guys had played so many minutes two nights in a row,” Silas said. “I guess it was kind of a combination of both, them hitting the gas pedal and us trying to find gas for the end game. We fought. We really fought.
It wasn’t enough. It’s progress.
“No low mood, or anything,” said Jabari Smith Jr., who had 17 points with 11 rebounds. “We played a great team, we failed.
“I feel like we had a fight. I think we recovered it. We fought to the end. It’s about putting everything together.”