OAKLAND, California—The 2018 Rockets have succeeded where the 2015 Rockets failed: they’ve staved off a Stephen Curry takeover long enough to give themselves a fighting chance in the Western Conference finals.
Three years ago, Golden State made quick work of Houston, gentleman-sweeping James Harden, Dwight Howard and company out of the West finals in five games. The Warriors exerted total control of that series thanks largely to Curry, who scored 34 points in Game 1, 33 points in Game 2 and delivered a back-breaking 40-point explosion in Game 3. The soon-to-be MVP nailed 20 combined three-pointers in those three games, a shooting display that marks perhaps the individual high-water mark of his postseason career to date.
That version of Curry has not yet arrived at the 2018 West finals. In related news: the series is even at one game apiece in advance of Sunday’s Game 3 at Oracle Arena. Through two games, Curry has made just two of his 13 three-point attempts, and his 1-8 shooting from deep in Game 2 marked his worst-ever playoff three-point shooting game by percentage. Curry has also failed to top 20 points in the series, marking the first time since the 2016 Finals that he’s fallen short of that threshold in back-to-back playoff games.
“I didn't have to talk to any of you all to wake up and know I didn't play well in Game 2,” Curry told reporters following practice on Friday. “That doesn't change my outlook on the series or what I need to do. If I don't shoot the ball well in Game 3, it won't change a thing about how I approach the next one. You know, you come to the game with the right intentions, the right approach. More times than not it will work out in your favor.”
There’s a ticking-time-bomb quality to Curry’s shooting. As stunning as his off nights have been in this series, his track record as a shooter is beyond reproach, and he will continue to demand total attention from the Rockets as this series continues.
Three years ago, the Rockets had no real answer to Curry, and he easily pushed their defensive discipline past the breaking point. Houston came better prepared this time around, both in personnel and in strategy. With Chris Paul, P.J. Tucker and other new faces in the fold, the Rockets have employed an aggressive switching strategy in hopes of dissuading Curry from getting clean looks at pull-up three-pointers and forcing him to attack off the dribble. They’ve also leaned heavily on interchangeable small lineups that feature five players who aren’t immediately susceptible to embarrassment when they face Curry on the perimeter.
Houston’s new-look defense has enjoyed meaningful success containing Curry to date. In five head-to-head games during the regular season and playoffs, the Rockets have held Curry below his scoring average, FG% and 3P%. They’ve also succeeded in limiting his trips to the free-throw line.
Curry’s 2017-18 overall stats: 26.4 PPG, 49.5 FG%, 42.3 3P%, 5.9 FTA
Curry vs. Houston during RS & Playoffs: 20.8 PPG, 42.4 FG%, 29.8 3P%, 3.2 FTA
But Golden State delivered a uniform message on Friday: Curry won’t remain neutralized forever.
“He may have missed a few threes,” Warriors forward Kevin Durant said. “But I mean, worrying about missed threes with Steph Curry? If Steph misses a shot, everybody gets up in arms about it. That's how great he is. So many people expect him to make every single shot.
“I knew the last couple days would be about Steph shooting the ball, but that's the last thing I worry about. I said this way before you guys ever said it—that he's the best shooter ever. I've got confidence in him on that side. I think we all do. All the fans, the players, we all do.”
In Game 2, with both Curry and Klay Thompson cold and out of sync, Golden State’s offense devolved into a series of Durant isolations as Houston claimed a double-digit victory. That showing, which came on the heels of Curry suggesting after Game 1 that he was dealing with an unspecific physical ailment, raised questions about his health. After all, the two-time MVP sprained his knee in March and missed the entire first round of the playoffs.
Upon completing an extensive shooting workout following practice, Curry said that he was “feeling pretty good” after logging 35 minutes in Game 1 and 34 minutes in Game 2.
“I felt fresh out there,” he said. “Never felt like I needed to look at Coach, like, ‘Hey, get me out, I'm tired.’ That's a positive. The intensity of how I'm playing, I'm able to sustain that and that's all I could ask for in that department. Now you've just got to put together the total package. I think I'm really close to that.”
Warriors coach Steve Kerr similarly insisted Curry’s struggles are not due to injury.
“I think Steph is healthy,” Kerr said. “He's moving fine. It's more rhythm than anything. … The analogy I would use would be to baseball: You come back in the playoffs and you're facing the other team's best pitching night after night. You're not going to get that one freebie where they have to call up the guy from the minors and he's much more hittable. It's harder to adapt in the playoffs. But I feel really good about where Steph is and our ability to help him and help free him up. I want Steph shooting every time he's open.”
Whether or not Curry is ailing, the extended break before Game 3 and the shift in venue should help. Curry’s two best postseason games this year came at home against the Pelicans: a 28-point Game 2 debut and a 28-point showing in a closeout Game 5 win.
Recent history strongly suggests that Golden State should bounce back in Game 3. Since Kerr’s arrival as coach in 2015, the Warriors are 27-5 at home during the playoffs with Curry in the lineup. What’s more, they’re 20-2 with Curry at home against Western Conference foes, with one of those losses coming to Durant’s Thunder in 2016. To top it off: they’re a perfect 11-0 at home with Curry in the lineup during the playoffs since Durant arrived in 2016-17.
One thing is certain: If Curry brought any lingering frustration back with him from Houston, he’s awfully adept at disgusting it.
“You always shoot the next shot with the optimism and confidence that it's going in,” he said. “You can work on stuff in between practices and games, get your rhythm, see the ball go in, work on your mechanics. But I never lose confidence in myself, ever. That will never change. … I never, never worry about [missing shots] because I know how hard I work at it. It's not a false sense of confidence. I know how hard I work at what I do.”