Houston should be encouraged by its play in Game 3, but what happens if Curry is merely bad instead of terrible?
Stephen Curry dribbled the ball behind his back and split through traffic with less than 20 seconds remaining in a five-point overtime deficit. But after creating a wide open lane to the hoop for himself, the two-time MVP fell multiple inches short of the rim on a completely open dunk.
OH NO, STEPH pic.twitter.com/cn0VZ6vK8v
— ESPN (@espn) May 5, 2019
The embarrassment of the rim-rejection ended a high-energy thriller at Toyota Center, as the Golden State contingent let the clock run out without fouling. Curry’s horrific finish was a microcosm of his painful night. The Rockets won, 126-121, to bring the series to 2-1, Golden State.
Saturday night’s game flew much differently for a Houston team that’s looked 25 percent overmatched in each of its losses this series. Namely, shots went down for them. The Rockets shot 48 percent from the field and sunk 18-of-42 three-point looks, proving their analytically inspired offense effective. James Harden finally looked MVP-esque, Eric Gordon was efficient for 31 points and Chris Paul filled a do-it-all true point guard lane. But it wasn’t their efforts alone that guided the Rockets to a well-needed ‘W.’
Houston likely comes away with a loss had Curry not had one of the brutal nights of his career, where he missed all six of his shot attempts in the fourth quarter and scored just 17 points on 7-of-23 shooting. He absolutely stunk.
Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni earned credit for Houston’s Game 3 win, though. There’s a heckuva lot to love about the way in which Houston won.
First, D’Antoni limited big-money center Clint Capela’s minutes when the game sped too fast for him. The seven-footer is one of the league’s best finishers and rim protectors, but much like Rudy Gobert and Steven Adams in the series before, those skills diminish in value against quicker, floor-spacing units. Capela played just 34 minutes in a game that spanned 53, and sat the final four of overtime.
In lieu of Capela, D’Antoni went with 6’6 forward P.J. Tucker at center to counter the Warriors’ death lineup, and it worked brilliantly. Despite shooting 3-of-9, Tucker was the Rockets’ leader in plus-minus among starters at plus-5, showing his money’s worth on the defensive end. He corralled 12 rebounds — five offensive — playing bigger than his size and owning the restricted area. And though Kevin Durant scored 46 points on 31 shots, he was, in some wild sense of the phrase, held in check by Tucker.
PJ Tucker is for sure on 1st Team All-Heart pic.twitter.com/0LYf44puoK
— Off the Glass (@otgbasketball) May 5, 2019
A lot else went well for Houston, too. Eric Gordon was given the ultimate green light and he took it, connecting on 7-of-14 threes. Harden made 5-of-13 threes. Capela, in his smaller role, scored 13 points on nine shots. Iman Shumpert scored 10 points in 18 minutes on five shots.
But even still, it’s Curry’s horrendous night that makes a 2-1 series feel like a facade. To go along with his 30 percent shooting, he had three turnovers and five fouls. His three-point shot was off the mark all night, his feet shuffled for at least one travel that referees missed, and he was so-so creating for his teammates (four assists.) Had Curry been 50 percent of himself, D’Antoni’s genius and his role players’ heroics would’ve been overlooked.
So will this be a Gentleman’s Sweep, after all? Will Golden State close this out in five?
That could come down to Curry’s play. The Warriors aren’t as deep as they once were. In Game 3, bench players totaled seven points. With so much money locked into its stars, Golden State’s elites need to produce, and Curry hasn’t pulled his weight in this series. In three games he’s averaging 18 points on 37 percent shooting and 25 percent accuracy from range.
If Curry, snaps out of his funk, the Warriors should roll. If not, D’Antoni’s adjustments could be enough to pull this upset off. This series is suddenly alive again.