Rockets use incredible 1st quarter, Harden's 45 to avoid Warriors sweep

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HOUSTON, TX - MAY 25: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets has his layup attempt blocked by Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors during Game Four of the Western Conference Finals at Toyota Center on May 25, 2015 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by dowloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - MAY 25: James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets has his layup attempt blocked by Draymond Green #23 of the Golden State Warriors during Game Four of the Western Conference Finals at Toyota Center on May 25, 2015 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by dowloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

The Houston Rockets needed a terrific performance to bounce back from a Game 3 blowout loss and extend their season. A 45-point first quarter certainly qualified as a pretty good foundation for their eventual 128-115 win.

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In tying a playoff record for first-quarter points, the Rockets put forward their highest-scoring period of the season and finished the opening 12 minutes with a 23-point lead. The Warriors made a valiant effort to come back and had to deal with a scary fall and lengthy absence for MVP Stephen Curry, but James Harden scored 33 of his 45 points in the second half to answer every Golden State run and seal the win. The bad news for Houston is that they still have to win three straight, including two in Oakland, to move on to the NBA Finals.

While this game featured many notable storylines and incidents that will affect the rest of the series, it was essentially won in the first quarter. The Rockets scored the first 12 points and opened on a 19-3 over the first 4:48, putting the Warriors in a massive hole they struggled to climb out of all night. The law of averages suggests that Houston would have returned to normal offensive output within a few minutes, but they kept going all through the first on their way to an absurd 45 points, a season-high for both their offense and the Golden State defense. The numbers are staggering — 17-of-22 shooting from the field and 8-of-9 shooting from deep with 10 fastbreak points, 13 points on 5-of-5 FG and 3-of-3 3FG for infamously poor outside shooter Josh Smith, and 10 points on 3-of-5 FG for James Harden. They also managed to hold Golden State to fairly poor 8-of-25 shooting from the field, a mark salvaged by 3-of-7 shooting on three-pointers from Stephen Curry.

The Warriors' league-best defense simply does not concede points so readily, and it seemed clear that they did not come out with the energy and focus required to keep the Rockets grounded. Yet, as in the Rockets' ridiculous late comeback in Game 6 of the conference semifinals vs. the Los Angeles Clippers, one team's failures can't fully explain their dominance. Houston was amazing in the first quarter, finding open shots and knocking down several contested looks. After three games in which they looked dependent on Harden for points, every player stepped up. It's difficult to imagine any team playing better over 12 minutes.

Things were bound to get worse for Houston in the second quarter, but they maintained a 55-36 lead up until Curry's game-changing fall and head injury with 5:52 remaining in the half. Our post on the injury has all the details on his removal and subsequent return in the middle of the third, but at the time of his fall it looked as if he might have suffered a very serious head, neck, or shoulder injury. Although details were scant during the game, Curry returned to the locker room and underwent tests as part of the NBA's concussion protocol. General manager Bob Myers stated without equivocation that he passed all relevant tests, and Curry said in his postgame press conference that he feels fine and expects to play in Game 5 if his condition stays in its current state:

In the immediate aftermath of his injury, though, the Warriors transcended the adversity to get back into the game. After Trevor Ariza knocked down two free throws to make it a 21-point lead, the Warriors went on a 15-4 run over the next 2:36 to cut the score to 61-51. The key was the reemergence of All-Star Klay Thompson, who had struggled to find his shooting stroke over the first three games of the series (and much of the playoffs, really). Thompson scored 12 of his 16 second-quarter points after Curry's exit as the Warriors put up 37 in the quarter. Golden State eventually got the deficit all the way down to seven points before Jason Terry hit a three-pointer to put it back up to 10. Nevertheless, the Warriors played well enough to keep it competitive and indicated that they could come back from down 69-59 at the half.

Golden State appeared to catch another break just a few minutes into the third quarter when Dwight Howard elbowed Andrew Bogut after the Aussie held him back as the Warriors got out in transition. Given the ejection of Atlanta Hawks star Al Horford in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Sunday, there seemed to be a reasonable chance that Howard would see the same fate:

Officials reviewed the incident and called a flagrant-1 foul, giving Bogut two free throws that he missed badly. But the Rockets haven't dodged all punishment yet, because the league can still review Howard's elbow and decide to suspend him for Game 5. While it's perhaps a bad comparison due to his history, Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith was suspended for two games after striking Boston Celtics wing Jae Crowder on a similar swing in Game 4 of the first round. This will be one of the biggest stories ahead of Wednesday's game.

Even with Howard in the game, the Warriors still looked in reasonable shape to mount a fierce comeback. When Curry returned with 5:58 remaining in the third, they trailed 81-69, a sizable but manageable deficit. Unfortunately, they had no way to stop James Harden, who decimated Golden State throughout the second half for 33 of his game-high 45 points. As the rest of the Rockets cooled off from their torrid first quarter, Harden only heated up on his way to marks of 13-of-22 shooting from the field (including 7-of-11 from deep) and 12-of-13 from the line. He did it in a number of ways, too — stepbacks, drives, you name it:

The Rockets did not win this game because the Rockets folded. Although Houston built the lead to as high as 22 in the last few minutes of the third, the Warriors got it down to 15 by the buzzer and as low as six points with 7:30 left in regulation. But Harden answered any time the result seemed in danger. With the glaring exception of Game 3, he has been every bit the superstar in this series by creating good looks and hitting contested shots when no other options exist. Curry and the Warriors were able to answer his offensive brilliance with their own in Games 1 and 2, but the necessary responses were not there on Monday. The second half was marked by several runs, and the Rockets simply had enough to close it out.

Nevertheless, the Warriors figure to leave Houston with a fairly high level of confidence, and not just because they're up 3-1 with two chances to win at home. While Curry could see setbacks in the next two days, his ability to return to the game and steadily look more comfortable while in it suggests that he'll be his usual self for Game 5. For that matter, this is still a team that beat the Rockets in their first seven matchups of the season, with five of those wins coming by double digits. Plus, it's always possible that the league will decide to suspend Howard, which would complicate matters significantly for Houston.

However, if the Rockets have proven anything in this postseason, it's that they play their best when they're at their most desperate. After the comeback vs. the Clippers and a 45-point quarter against the league's best defense, it's becoming more difficult to view this team through the lens of standard basketballular analysis. When Josh Smith can make three three-pointers in a single quarter twice in a span of six games, it's probably best not to assume too much.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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