CHICAGO - The words "collapsed" and "defending champions" rarely go together in a sentence.
But in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals this morning at the Oracle Arena, attaching the unfavorable verb to the famous noun was the most prudent way to describe how the Golden State Warriors managed to pull defeat from the jaws of victory.
Up 80-70 with 12 minutes to go for a commanding 3-1 series lead, the Warriors melted in front of a stunned 19,596 home crowd. In that fourth horror show, they scored just one point for every minute and hit only three of 18 field goals, allowing the Houston Rockets to escape Oakland with a 95-92 nail-biter.
Previously, these Dubs were 48-0 in the postseason when entering the fourth quarter with at least a 10-point lead. "Undefeated, never lost," as the loquacious LaVar Ball would say.
But there is always a first time. And this one couldn't have happened at the worst time. With the series reduced to three games, Golden State must now win at least one on the Rockets home turf to advance to the NBA Finals and defend their crown.
It certainly is highly a doable task but the Warriors added an unnecessary degree of difficulty to the task.
After going on a 34-17 third quarter run, the Warriors went cold in the fourth and misfired all over the hushed arena. Kevin Durant went 1-of-5, Steph Curry missed seven of eight and Klay Thompson airballed a 16-foot jumper that could have tied the contest at 94-94 with 2.2 ticks to go.
"We ran out gas," The San Francisco Chronicle quoted coach Steve Kerr who only used nine Warriors in Game Four, electing to bench big men ZaZa Pachulia, JaValae McGee. Damian Jones and David West, all of whom would have been eviscerated by the speed of the Rockets' perimeter-oriented small ball lineup.
Champions don't make alibis, so I buy Kerr's explanation, albeit reluctantly because the Rockets only used seven players to launch this giant upset.
But really, the cause of the Warriors' Game Four defeat was the effect of Andre Iguodala, who didn't play because of a left leg contusion. Without the man they call money or Dolla Billz, the Warriors couldn't cash in a big lead.
Golden State wished they had Iggy. The former NBA Finals MVP would have brought 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds of mental toughness. A 13-year veteran, the 33-year old would have provided the patience in an impatient fourth quarter, the calm beneath the panic, and the wisdom amid the confusion.
Without him, the rest of Hamptons Five played more minutes than usual. Draymond Green logged 45, Durant had 43 while Curry and Thompson each had 39. They all performed and produced but tired legs resulted in less lift required for a lethal shot, especially out deep.
Curry, who had 28 points, missed 16 shots. Durant tallied 27 and 12 boards but he clunked 15 shots. Klay Thompson was horrible, 4-for-13 for 10 points.
Still, credit goes to the Rockets for soldiering on despite trailing 12-0 early and 82-70 late. Instead of folding the tent, they unfurled a surprise.
James Harden didn't look like the presumptive MVP, swishing just 11 of 26 from the field and three of 12 from long distance. But he somehow managed to score 30 points.
Chris Paul ignored both the pain of a leg injury and the pestilence of Draymond Green to score 27 points on 10-of-20 shooting.
Eric Gordon couldn't find the ocean from the shore, hitting only four of 14 shots, but he outscored the shallow Warriors bench 14-12.
P.J. Tucker channeled his inner Dennis Rodman and sequestered 16 rebounds to offset his meager four-point production.
Trevor Ariza and Clint Capela combined for 17 points and 16 boards.
Percentage-wise, the Rockets lost the contest - 39.3 percent to 39 percent from the field and 33.3 percent to 31.6 from 3-point range. But what they lacked in marksmanship they made up in volume. Houston sank three more 3s and 10 more free throws.
Kevin Durant was supposed to be unguardable. Steph Curry was supposed to be unflappable. And with a 17-0 playoffs win streak at the Oracle Arena, the Warriors were supposed to be unbeatable in their building.
Myths. These are all myths, the Rockets proved, at least for one memorable game.
"I thought this was the highest level we've ever played defensively, without a doubt," Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni told reporters. Well, that's a myth, too. It's a case of the suds of euphoria washing away the truth.
Look, the Warriors did not miss 54 shots because the Rockets suddenly turned into the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons of the 90s. It was just one of those rough days at work for Golden State.
I still believe in KD. I still believe in Steph and Klay and the splash they can bring. And I keep the faith that their championship experience will come shining through when everything is dribbled and shot.
Meanwhile, hats off to Harden and his beard, And kudos to CP3 and his fellow Rockets for showing me the guts I thought they never had.
But I'm not jumping off the Warriors wagon and changing my pick. As my angry ex-wife and my brooding mother will tell you, I'm as stubborn as they come.
The Warriors will still win this series in six games. They will sleep off Game Four's nightmare, take a nice jet ride to Houston, watch film, correct their mistakes, stay in character, and ultimately, handle their business in Game Five at the Toyota Center.
So relax Dub Nation. The fun has only just begun.