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5 Clutch Points: Warriors out-warriored by Rockets in Game 4 loss

The Houston Rockets mustered another big-time effort to tie up the series at 2-2 on Monday. The Golden State Warriors will only have one day to reload before Wednesday’s clash at Oracle Arena, hoping to put them at the verge of elimination after two straight losses.

These are 5 Clutch Points of Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals:

Late heroics & clutch misses

A crazy chain of events got the Warriors — who had trailed the Rockets for most of the game — within striking distance with only seconds left in regulation.

A couple of Kevin Durant jumpers and a clutch top-of-the-arc three by Stephen Curry following a fly-by reload on P.J. Tucker cut the deficit to two, giving them a chance to tie the game after James Harden missed the second of two foul shots.

Kevin Durant got a wide-open look from 28 feet, but clanked it off the left side of the back rim after hiding behind Draymond Green to get the shot off. A Green tapout offensive rebound wound find Curry outside the left wing, but once again unable to cash in, which spelled the end of the road for the defending champions.

Besides the last minutes of the game, Golden State was unable to make a dent on the Rockets’ defense all game long, allowing them to cook up the one recipe that gives them a fighting chance in this series — a bevy of threes and offensive rebounds.

The Rockets out-rebounded the Warriors 13 to eight on the offensive glass, while shooting 17-of-50 from deep, an inefficient 34%, but one that more-than-doubled Golden State’s 8-of-33 performance from beyond the arc.

Before the dying moments of regulation, Klay Thompson had yet another vital miss, a wide-open trey that would have cut the Rockets’ lead to five, but he remained ice cold, now shooting 30.8% from deep this series.

It’s these typical momentum swingers that kept the Warriors from stealing games on the road, which they had done formidably in the past series. The well ran dry for the defending champions, and all they have left is hope that there’s enough water to splash down a few more shots at home, now with two of the next three games played at Oracle Arena.

Warriors out-warriored

The Rockets have managed to make this a series by taking a page out of Steve Kerr’s playbook and going even smaller than the Warriors, as they did in several instances, including late in the fourth quarter.

Mike D’Antoni played a lineup of four guards and one makeshift center in P.J. Tucker, who absolutely bulldozed the defending champions on the boards, ensnaring five offensive rebounds and getting his hands in several extra possessions with his hustle.

Houston out-rebounded the Warriors for a second straight game. The difference? a 13-to-eight differential, which can be chalked up to Tucker’s effort pounding the glass relentlessly — especially in key possessions.

The Rockets put up a line up of Chris Paul, Austin Rivers, Eric Gordon, James Harden and Tucker — yes, a lineup in which Harden draws the power forward assignment on Kevin Durant — and the Warriors simply couldn’t exploit the height advantage, suffocated by perimeter defense that extended to half-court and stopped shy of shots at the rim by smart fouls.

Every Warriors starter had a height advantage with this lineup, but it mattered little — flustered by a team determined to get stops.

“They got a lot of middle linebackers on that team,” Kerr said post-game. “They’re sturdy. And we look like volleyball players: long and lean.”

This is where brute force meets tactical physicality, something the Rockets have mastered by now, taking a page out of the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers’ playbook, which frustrated perimeter players with tight defense that extended well beyond the 3-point arc.

Yet this Houston team boasts an important difference: two self-made defenders in Gordon and Harden, who now have proven to hold their own against the Warriors’ star power.

The Ghost of Klay

Klay Thompson is often at a comfortable spot, getting high praise when he breaks out for big-time performances and skating by with no major criticism as the third option on offense. The Warriors sniper has yet to show up in this series, failing to shoot more than 40% from the field in any of the four games and shooting a baffling 9-of-26 from deep (30.8%), which simply won’t cut it against a high-octane team like the Rockets.

To make matters worse, Thompson’s defense has begun to decay as well — and that was the lone constant the Warriors could rely on in past postseasons.

Thompson was out of sorts on Monday, disjointed and making poor decisions defensively and in transition, like this hapless floating pass to no one after a baffling Iman Shumpert point-blank missed layup.

In games when he has it going, the Warriors have often forgotten about Thompson in the second half, but his poor performance in this series largely hinges on how he’s been stalemated by Eric Gordon’s spry and physical defense.

Shooting guard to shooting guard, Thompson has been vastly outplayed by Gordon at both ends of the floor. The Rockets sharpshooter is putting up a career playoff-high 23 points per game and making four 3-pointers per game in this series while Thompson is at a pedestrian 15.3-point clip — an underwhelming mark.

Draymond the motivator

Draymond Green was seen taking on his role of team leader during Monday night’s game, first getting on his teammates during a late second-quarter timeout and then again at halftime, hoping to motivate them.

Despite taking this hard knock on the noggin’ early in the first half, Green was locked in, posting the highest plus-minus of any of the starters (plus-5).

Yet his motivator antics didn’t stop there, saying some much-needed truths during his post-game availability after pressed for comment on how the Warriors were out-rebounded in these last two games.

“I think it’s just a mindset,” Green said. “We’re going into a fight, thinking it’s a fair fight and it’s not. They’re doing whatever it takes to win — nothing dirty or anything like that — but they’re doing whatever it takes to win and we’re just kind of rolling in (nonchalantly) like, ‘OK, we’ll box.’ And they’re slamming us.

“We gotta change our mindset. If we change our mindset, we’ll be fine. The first two games, it was the complete opposite. We were taking it to them. That’s the difference in this series. That’s why it’s 2-2. We have to change that and it starts with me.”

Each team has made use of their home court to net wins, and if this is the case for the Warriors, they should have the upper hand, with two of the potential next three games at Oracle Arena. Though most importantly, the Warriors must come out motivated, and Green will play a huge role in that department.

“We didn’t feel this way after Game 4 last year,” said Green. “Andre had just went out. We spent Game 4 trying to figure out who that fifth guy would be. There were so many questions that needed to be answered. Those questions aren’t there this year. We know the answer to our problem. That’s pretty exciting. That’s my department to lead in and I know I’ll lead in that department.”

Steve Kerr must earn his keep

Breaking into the coaching realm during the 2014-15 season, Kerr dazzled with his smart out-of-bounds plays to find cutters for easy layups and brilliant ATO sets to find his best shooters open for a 3-point look. His claim to fame was the ballsy move to start Andre Iguodala during the 2015 NBA Finals and bench Andrew Bogut, a move that earned the former a Finals MVP and won Kerr a championship as a rookie coach.

Those days seem pretty distant nowadays, as Kerr is presently limited to making small adjustments and likely has burnt his last ace in the hole by pulling the same move he did four years ago, giving Iguodala the start in this Hamptons 5 lineup.

The reality is simple — Kerr has next to no bench firepower now that he’s put Iguodala in the starting lineup, unable to play Quinn Cook and Jonas Jerebko due to their defensive limitations and shying away from playing Bogut due to his poor lateral movement against a spry Rockets team.

With the series tied at 2-2, Kerr has only one advantage now that he’s seen his strategy backfire in the last two games, with his starters’ legs wearing thin after 40-plus-minute stints on the floor — home court.

The Warriors will play two of their next three games at Oracle Arena, but the adjustments will be all on Kerr to make, looking to outsmart a resilient Mike D’Antoni who has done his job by leading Houston to defending its home court.

Kerr received a contract extension this summer — now it’s time to earn it in full — making the most of this superstar core and its weapons against their biggest foes in their way of a third straight title.

This might be the coach’s greatest success or the one he let get away, as this might just be the best firepower he has at his disposal for a very long time, given the looming offseason implications.