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Rockets stave off elimination and coronation with game 4 win

The Rockets delayed the Golden State coronation for at least two more nights after a 128 - 115 game 4 victory.

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Let's face it. Even though Monday night's 128-115 Rockets victory over the Warriors kept a tiny flicker of hope in our hearts as Rockets fans, our heads tell us something completely different.

It's been repeated everywhere and in every media outlet ad nauseum, so no need to remind anyone the odds the Rockets face against coming back in this series.

And besides, deep down, we all knew this Houston squad, as much as we love them and as good as they've been this season, was a flawed one coming in to the playoffs. Injuries sapped 40 percent of the starting lineup, which included both the Rockets best perimeter defender in Patrick Beverley and the only other player on the roster outside of James Harden capable of creating his own shot in Donatas Motiejunas.

Despite the fun postseason ride and even a little bit of history-making in the process, most observers on all sides expected the Rockets run to end here in this round against Golden State. And quite frankly, none of that has changed after the big Game 4 victory.

The Rockets did come out with considerably more spark in this one, scoring 45 points in the first quarter, which is the most any team has scored in the opening period in NBA playoff history. They also knocked down 8 threes in the quarter, after having only 5 in all of game 3.

But they also showed the inconsistency that has plagued them all postseason in allowing the Warriors to battle back from 20-plus point deficits on several occasions during the game. Even in a convincing victory on the scoreboard, the Rockets teetered on the brink a few times in Game 4 before finally leveling out in the second half of the fourth quarter.

Kevin McHale made legitimate strategic adjustments Monday night when he shortened the bench, ran a small-ball lineup of his own to combat the one Golden State's been trotting out all series (and all season), and all but eliminated the post up from the offensive playbook except as a last resort.

But as has often been the case with McHale's strategic sense, he's been too late to react and implement, and it appears a case of too little too late once again.

James Harden was wonderful on Monday night, his 45-9-5 line with 2 steals and 2 blocks on 13 - 22 shooting including 7 - 11 from three point land a thing of true beauty.

And Harden finally got some help.

The Rockets finished with six players in double figures, including all five starters. And yes, that does include Jason Terry (10 points), who's been absolutely abysmal up to this point in the series.

Josh Smith also shook off the doldrums in Game 4, giving us mostly Dr. Jekyll Josh, as he transformed into the secondary scoring option this offense requires to really hum. Smith had 20 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists on 7-8 shooting, including 3-4 from three.

And though Mr. Hyde Josh poked up his ugly head on a few occasions to deliver a couple of errant passes and 6 turnovers, Smith was mostly able to keep his destructive alter-ego at bay.

Unfortunately for the Rockets, we've seen nothing yet to suggest a pattern of being able to keep up that type of total team effort against Golden State. The Rockets are now 1-7 against the Dubs on the season, as the Warriors have quickly developed into Houston's arch-nemesis and the Rockets' un-scaled hurdle in a quest up the championship mountain.

Any potential Rockets comeback, as we all know, remains a steep climb and almost a statistical impossibility.

But the one thing this game 4 victory did do -- and if there's one immediate gratification to be taken from the win-- is it delayed the coronation of the pre-ordained.

Make no mistake. Golden State has played fantastic basketball this season. They have a sparkling record, are virtually unbeatable at home, are dominant on both offense and defense, and have owned the Rockets' souls Shang Tsung-style.

But with major media outlets already declaring this year's Warriors team among the greatest to ever play the game (see here and here), there's a certain satisfaction in delaying the celebration of a front runner who has yet to win its own Conference Championship before being gifted the pantheons of history.

Let's say nothing of the LeBron-sized boulder still sitting in their path way after eventually vanquishing the Rockets.

Point differentials and concocted ratings mean nothing without the hardware to go with it, and while, like most, I certainly consider the Warriors the absolute favorites moving forward, let's have them actually win the title first before putting them on Mount Rushmore alongside the best champions the game has seen.

The Rockets can delay the coronation ceremony even further with a victory in game 5 on Wednesday.