Any lauding of the Houston Rockets' resilience in Game 4 on Tuesday at Oracle Arena begins with an acknowledgment of their defense, with cliched adjectives serving the general purpose of explaining how they overcame a double-digit, fourth-quarter deficit to claim victory and square the Western Conference Finals before the series relocated back to Toyota Center.
But for a series rife with adjustments, the truth of how Houston salvaged its championship aspirations lies within the minutiae. Methodically and stubbornly, the Rockets have invited the Warriors to play their brand of isolation basketball, influencing Golden State for long enough stretches to temporarily secure advantages with a style of play that blatantly benefits Houston.
The fourth quarter of Game 4 offered a prime example. The Warriors claimed their largest lead of the contest at 82-70 when Stephen Curry assisted on a Shaun Livingston dunk at the 10:45 mark. That play produced the 14th and final assist of the evening for Golden State.
"We scored 12 points," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of the fourth period. "So it's not like we were getting great shots either.
"It was sort of trench warfare. It was just everybody grinding it out, a lot of isolation. I guess this is the modern NBA. But the only way you can do this and win is you have to have great one-on-one players. You've got to have great defenders, two-way guys, and we do and they do. And so, it just becomes a one-on-one battle with all the switching, and they did a great job of it."
The Warriors paced the NBA in assist percentage (68.5) during the regular season. The Rockets, conversely, ranked 22nd at 55.7 percent, relying on the isolation brilliance of James Harden and Chris Paul. And while Golden State features two exceptional one-on-one talents in Kevin Durant and Curry, isolation basketball doesn't reflect the Warriors' offensive identity.
The Warriors' 14 assists in Game 4 represented a series low. Their 48.2 assist rate in the series is worse than the Rockets' assist percentage (49.3), a remarkable and surprising development. The final period on Tuesday revealed Golden State at its most unrecognizable and disjointed.
"I think we just got a little rushed," Curry said. "I think some of the mix-ups we had on defense affected our energy on the offensive end. And credit to them: We know they're doing a lot of switching and trying to force us into one-on-one-type situations, but that's no excuse to not get the ball moving, trusting what we do best. And whether it's the first quarter, second quarter, or crunch time in the fourth, we got to be us. And that's going to be the adjustment for Game 5."
With Game 5 set for Toyota Center on Thursday, the Rockets have a clear understanding of their most immediate mission. Their season-long defensive might has served them well during crucial spans against the Warriors, with Houston scrambling and contesting at a fevered pitch.
The moments when the Warriors get rolling offensively have been harrowing for Houston, yet the Rockets mustered the gumption in Games 2 and 4 to claw back into contention behind their defense. When Golden State threatened to run off to a 3-1 series lead, Houston was unbowed.
"These are the moments that we spend all that time for," Paul said. "Mental toughness is just as important as physical toughness, and I think guys on our team showed that."
That level of perseverance wasn't attached to the Rockets' collective identity or aligned to Harden individually. But in Game 4, Houston finally won at Oracle Arena and snapped the Warriors' 16-game home postseason winning streak. After falling to the Warriors in five games in consecutive postseasons, the Rockets have finally cleared one hurdle. Another one awaits.
"We came a long way," Harden said. "Obviously new personnel but we came an extremely long way, and we've been talking about it all season long (starting in the) summertime: put ourselves in the best position, and we're doing that. And so, another opportunity Game 5, we've got to come out and take advantage of it. Simple."