To the Rockets, the Warriors looked nothing like a team that came to town with an 11-game losing streak on the road.
But to the Warriors, the Rockets may not have looked like a team that had already lost 53 games.
Looks can be deceiving, but so can streaks of loss.
The Warriors’ much-discussed and baffling skid ended when they pulled away in the fourth quarter to outscore the Rockets 121-108 Monday night at the Toyota Center. They never drove in double figures until they hit the gas to leave the Rockets behind, scoring 37 points in the fourth quarter to open up what had been a tight game.
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The Rockets, who played without Alperen Sengun, who was out with an illness, and Jae’Sean Tate, who was sidelined for the second half of the back-to-back with injury management, kept the game close, with Tari Eason starting and matching his career-high with 21 points, while adding 12 rebounds and four steals. Jalen Green had 20 points as each starter scored in double figures.
But when the Rockets couldn’t stop in the fourth quarter, with the Warriors finally taking care of the ball, they couldn’t keep up.
The Warriors started the fourth quarter, jumping from four to a 16-point lead. But the Rockets closed within 10 and a long-term chance after Eason led his fourth steal on a run dunk, giving him 19 points to go with 11 rebounds to start.
The Rockets cut the lead to single digits, Kevin Porter Jr. knocking down three free throws with 2:10 remaining. Klay Thompson missed a three in the corner and Jabari Smith Jr. rushed a layup that put the Rockets within seven.
This time, Thompson hit from the corner, giving him 29 points and the Warriors a secure 10-point lead with 1:28 left.
Stephen Curry added one last 3-pointer to give him 30 points after his scoreless first quarter, and a reminder that the Warriors, for all their problems away from home, may not have changed much after all.
Fourth and win
The Rockets hung out all night. They usually do.
It only took a few possessions to start the fourth quarter to see that the Warriors had another gear. They usually do.
Even in the Warriors’ strangely up-and-down season, with home excellence and road struggles, the fourth quarter got underway and the Warriors moved in for the kill.
Curry finished off drives twice, then nailed a 3 before setting up Jonathan Kuminga for a runaway slam. That said, the Warriors were off and running.
They had spent the game losing 3 seconds and turning the ball over. But the fourth quarter is winning time for a team still used to winning.
In the first six minutes of the fourth quarter, the Warriors hit 9-of-11 shots, including 4-of-5 3-pointers, to score 24 points and open up a 15-point lead.
The Rockets, playing the second half of a back-to-back shorthanded, could have hit a block. They did 1 in 6 3’s to open the fourth quarter. But the Warriors had removed the sloppiness, ramped up the intensity, and sent the Rockets and their losing streak on the road as soon as the fourth quarter got underway.
Opportunity knocks, then closes the door
The Rockets were in the game at halftime, trailing only 55-50. But there was a sense that they had bought their time, or at least squandered an opportunity.
The Warriors were noticeably sloppy with the ball, committing 14 turnovers in the half. They didn’t shoot well from deep, making 7 of 23 3s. Curry singled them out in the first quarter, not scoring at all until he scored 15 in the second quarter. Jordan Poole only made one shot.
However, the Rockets didn’t take advantage of this for the usual reasons.
They couldn’t even take care of the ball and couldn’t shoot.
This tends to happen. Though they’ve gotten better at handling the ball, they still lead the NBA in turnovers. And they have the worst 3-point percentage in the league.
That makes for a very difficult matchup with the Warriors. While the Warriors’ road woes didn’t extend to their 3-point shooting, where they have the second-best road shooting percentage in the NBA, they didn’t defend the 3-point line. In road games, they yield the second-best 3-point shooting percentage.
The Rockets, though, aren’t equipped to take advantage of this at home or on the road. They made just 4 of 17 3s in the first half. Green, Smith and Porter were the only Rockets to make one and Porter was only 1-for-4, 1-for-5 overall.
They had a half to get it right. But when it comes to dropping the 3 open, there isn’t an adjustment to be made, having spent the season failing to find him.
The home of the Rockets was full of teams playing shorthanded, as is often the case this season. In their six games, they have not played against Robert Williams, Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Zion Williamson and Andrew Wiggins.
However, the Rockets were without Sengun and Tate on Monday. And while neither have been mistaken for James or Davis, except on Twitter, they’ve been lost. Also, playing shorthanded was a reminder that the Rockets played long stretches of the season without Tate and without Porter.
It’s part of life in the NBA, but the Rockets weren’t equipped to play without two of their top seven players. The next man sounds good. He has to, since the players say it so often. But for the Rockets, Tate, Porter and KJ Martin are the three most veteran players actually playing.