HOUSTON -- Kevin Durant trudged out of the locker room, bruises covered by a gray designer hoodie, trying to ignore the soreness. Andre Iguodala limped out a few minutes after Klay Thompson. Stephen Curry, the least imposing of the Warriors, was the last to emerge.
The training room inside the visiting locker room at Toyota Center was busy -- like Black Friday morning at Target -- around midnight Tuesday because so many Warriors needed everything from ointment and adhesive tape to ice packs and those bulky wearable therapy kits.
No casts or crutches. Not yet.
In the wake of a 112-108 bullying by the Rockets Monday night in Game 4 of their NBA playoff second-round series, the Warriors looked more like they’d lost a fight than a basketball game.
Houston not only made enough shots over 48 minutes to even the series, but also did considerable banging and bumping and beating on the Warriors.
“We go into a fight thinking it’s a fair fight -- and it’s not,” Draymond Green said. “They’re doing whatever it takes to win. Not that they’re doing anything dirty or anything like that, but they’re doing whatever it takes to win. And we’re kind of rolling in like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll box.’ And they’re slamming us.”
That’s where this series has gone, from the Rockets complaining about the officiating after Game 1 to breaking out the bulk. Coming home after dropping the first two games in Oakland, they got back into this series by adding MMA action to the hoops.
“They’ve got a lot of middle linebackers on that team,” coach Steve Kerr said. “They’re sturdy. And we look more like volleyball players, long and lean.”
Aside from Chris Paul, who checks in a 6-foot, 185 pounds, the Rockets are hitting the Warriors with a challenging combination of muscle and hustle. James Harden, 6-5, 220, consistently uses his shoulder and elbows to create space to launch his shots. Eric Gordon -- 6-4, listed at 215, but looks more like 230 -- barrels his way about the court, usually toward the rim.
The leader of the Houston pack, forward PJ Tucker, is a 6-foot-5, 245-pound bundle of muscle and kinetic energy. Six inches shorter than Durant but clearly heavier, Tucker attacks every second as if it might be his last in the NBA.
“His talent is playing hard, so he brings that every night,” Harden said.
When Tucker isn’t laying on Durant, he’s being a savage in the paint, grabbing rebounds (10 in Game 4, putting his average in the series at 8.8 per game) and also pushing bodies around to tap balls to his teammates.
Houston, for the second consecutive game, won the rebounding battle, this time 50-43 after owning the glass 55-35 in Game 3. The Rockets grabbed 13 offensive rebounds, resulting in more shot attempts, but also energizing them while sucking energy from the Warriors.
The question is not only whether the Warriors respond, but also how? They can’t slug it out with this bunch. The rational approach, then, is to fight back using speed and finesse.
“We’ve done this, many times before,” Kerr said. “We’ve played all kinds of different teams and everybody tries to be physical with us, because they should. That’s the best way to try to beat us. Houston is very physical. They’re very good. But . . . we know what we have to do.”
They provided a glimpse of it in the fourth quarter. The defense that through three quarters allowed 93 points (on 49.2 percent shooting, including 42.1 percent from beyond the arc), tapped into a reservoir of gusto and gave up only 19 in the fourth -- on 30.8 percent shooting overall and 1-of-12 from deep. It was the only quarter in which the Warriors won the rebounding battle (16-14) and they also outscored Houston by five.
The Warriors were floating and stinging until a 12-point deficit (104-92) with 6:21 remaining was down to two (110-108) inside the final minute.
Durant and Curry missed potential game-tying 3-pointers inside the final 10 seconds, but the Warriors during that quarter engaged their testy gene.
“We didn’t match their physicality until about the last four minutes of the game,” Green said. “And it’s been that way for about the last 96 minutes of this series. So, we have to correct that.”
This is the point in the series where we find out if the Warriors still have their championship heart. Even if they do, they’re going to need sports medicine assistance afterward.