HOUSTON — The Houston Rockets have a chance to take their first lead in the Western Conference finals with a victory over the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night.
To do that they'll need their superstars to step up again, with the pressure on James Harden and Chris Paul to deliver after their big performances in Game 3 spurred Houston to the road victory that tied the best-of-seven series at 2-2.
"We're back to even," coach Mike D'Antoni said. "We know what we have to do and see if we can do it against a great team."
After two blowout losses in this series, including an embarrassing 41-point rout in Game 3, the Rockets know they don't have any time to celebrate Tuesday's win. It was a victory that snapped Golden State's NBA-record 16-game home playoff winning streak.
"We have to get down to normal sea level real quick, because we've got a lot of work left," D'Antoni said. "We know it's not going to be easy, but also they know now it's not going to be easy. We're looking forward to it ... with the right type of fear and the right type of excitement."
It's a huge opportunity for Harden and Paul, who've both had their fair share of playoff disappointments in the past, but combined to score 57 points Tuesday's 95-92 win that put the top-seeded Rockets back in the driver's seat in this series.
The 33-year-old Paul is a conference finals rookie after failing to get out of the second round in his previous nine playoff trips. Though he's never reached this level in the postseason before, his 13 years of NBA experience have proven invaluable as the Rockets try to knock off the defending champions and advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since winning consecutive titles in 1994-95.
Though the Rockets are heading to Houston for Thursday's game, they know that playing at home doesn't give them an excuse to let up.
"Both teams have the ability to win on the road," Paul said. "We had to prove that to ourselves. Weathering the storm, the runs that they made, and knowing that now we get a chance to go back home, we knew we had to get at least one win here. We got it, so now it's a three-game series."
Though the pressure to perform is heightened for Harden and Paul, Rockets players and D'Antoni agree that they can't get it done without plenty of help from Houston's supporting cast. P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela combined for 29 rebounds on Tuesday night, and in Houston's Game 2 victory the Rockets had five players score 16 or more points.
"It's a close series so without any of them you don't get there," D'Antoni said. "So everybody has their role and some play a bigger role — bigger meaning they shoot the ball more so we as a society give them a bigger role — but everybody is just as important."
While the Rockets are thrilled to see the momentum of the series swing their way for perhaps the first time in the series, the Warriors are upset that they let what they feel like was a winnable Game 4 get away. Draymond Green is OK with his team having its back against the wall and believes the Warriors play well when faced with adversity.
"I know what we're capable of and I know the level of focus and intensity that this team brings when that is the case," he said. "We blew a golden opportunity but it's not one that we can't get back. We can get it back. So there's no panic."
Stephen Curry said he spent much of Wednesday going over each possession of Golden State's 12-point fourth quarter in his mind and thinking of ways he and the team could have done things better to close the game out after leading by double digits early in the period.
"It's a frustrating feeling obviously ... but we're great at turning the page and being resilient and finding a way to bounce back," he said.
This series has already had so many ups and downs that it could give a young person gray hair. For the already silver-locked D'Antoni, who at 67 would be the oldest coach to win an NBA title if Houston gets it done, the exhilaration of this journey has been well worth any stress it has caused.
"It makes me feel alive, I know that much," he said. "It feels good. You coach all year for this or even your whole career to get here or get as close as you can. It's great competition, against one of the best teams ever."