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    COLUMN: Plucky Rockets turning Dubs' march to 3-peat into one heck of a tribulation

    May 8, 2019
    PHOTO: AP
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    CHICAGO - Many reporters doubted it - especially this one - but we saw them do it in Game 3, a narrow, exhausting thriller that required an extra five minutes to put to bed at 126-121.

    And when the doubts lingered, they proved that Game 3 wasn't a fluke by validating it with a harrowing 112-108 Game 4 victory where they passed a stern test of nerves and mental fortitude.

    Never thought I'd type these words, but my eyes have seen enough to acknowledge that the Houston Rockets are playing better basketball than the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.

    They're plucky, relentless, and unyielding. And that's why we have a Western Conference semifinals series that is now tied at 2-2.

    James Harden played Game 4 at an MVP level, collecting 38 points, 10 rebounds and four assists in a highly efficient 13 of 29 shooting from the field and 6-of-17 from 3-point distance.

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    Chris Paul was once again a $40 million afterthought with just 13 points and five dimes to his credit, but the Rockets survived Game 4 and won two straight over those Warriors at the Toyota Center largely because of other valuable pieces.

    Eric Gordon embodied Houston's never-say-die spirit, soldiering through a miserable shooting night - 2-for-12 from long distance - and still somehow managed to finish with 20 points.

    Meanwhile, Austin Rivers hasn't run dry. The valuable reserve turned in another meaningful 33 minutes off the bench and recorded 10 points on the strength of two 3-pointers. His defense, pesky and tireless, made the Warriors guards work for every shot.

    Just as quickly as Golden State built a 2-0 lead, the Rockets took it down with two defiant victories at home, shrinking this rivalry series into a three-game set.

    So what happened to the Warriors during their fruitless trip to Houston?

    So many factors can be litigated to determine a cause, but two things stand out the most - 3-point shooting and P.J. Tucker.

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    The Rockets sank a combined 35 threes against the Warriors' 22, a plus 39 points advantage. It's not surprising for Houston to outgun Golden State, but its shocking to see such disparity.

    The great Manny Pacquiao once said that the most damaging blow a fighter can sustain is the one he didn't see coming.

    For the Warriors, that blow, the one they least expected and never imagined would inflict so much harm, has been generated by the broad shoulders of the 6-foot-6, 245-pound Tucker.

    What a difference he's been thus far.

    IN A MARQUEE SHOWDOWN dotted by the names of the game's biggest stars, Tucker has forcefully inserted himself among the main characters. And he's doing it through old-fashioned hard work and moxie.

    A menacing defender, Tucker had a combined 24 points and 22 rebounds in Games 3 and 4. His 12 offensive boards, most of which were plucked late, deflated the Warriors and nourished Houston's second-chance opportunities.

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    Who is P.J. Tucker?

    A product of the University of Texas at Austin, Tucker was taken by Toronto as its second-round pick in the 2006 NBA draft. But after playing 17 games where he averaged 1.8 points and 1.4 rebounds per, he was assigned to the G-League before being waived in May 2007.

    Tucker persevered and took his talents to Israel, Ukraine, Greece and Italy before returning to the NBA in 2012. And you better believe it, he is here for good.

    The 34-year old Tucker is living proof that sometimes rejection is a gift. And redemption is the reward.

    And while the Rockets have now planted their Nikes on the grounds of confidence, the sobering reality remains that the Warriors are still in control because Game 5 and Game 7, if necessary, will be contested at their home floor, the Oracle Arena.

    And that is why Draymond Green dismissed his team's back-to-back losses like lint in his pocket.

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    "I think our vibe is just great. Because everybody's just looking at each other like we know if we just correct the effort things we're just fine. And so everybody's spirits are up, everyone's feeling good of the opportunities we have," Green told Bleacher Report.

    Pain is a part of life, but suffering is an option. Yes, the Warriors are stung, but they're not losing sleep over it.

    They are back home, in familiar soil. As long as Steph Curry and Kevin Durant will do what they do best, and once Klay Thompson discovers the unfolding mystery of his missing shot, the champs will be just fine.

    But the Rockets deserve the highest praise for making the Warriors' march to a 3-peat not just a mere coronation, but one heck of a tribulation.

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    PHOTO: AP
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