The Houston Rockets finished the regular season as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and as the owner of the best record in the league. In Game 1 of the conference finals against the Golden State Warriors, the Rockets did not live up to the hype, as they got wrecked at home, 119-106.
In Game 2, they returned the favor to the Warriors with an even bigger demolition job of their own, bouncing back with a 127-105 win to tie the series up.
With that loss to Houston, Golden State has now lost a game in each of the first three rounds of these playoffs. Most Warriors fans would deem that setback as their team’s way of challenging itself. Occasionally, Golden State appears to eat up a defeat to remind itself that it’s never going to be easy for them no matter how much of a cakewalk the competition actually looks to the defending champions.
Losses like the one in the first round to the San Antonio Spurs, and the other to the New Orleans Pelicans in the conference semifinals, carried some sort of existentialist themes in them – in order for the Warriors to stay on track and remember their purpose, they sometimes need to take a pie in the face.
The loss to the Rockets on Wednesday, however, seemed like it was more than just the Warriors voluntarily falling to a prank to add a little more fun to the party. Warriors fans can fake complacency, but the way the Rockets played and won that game probably gave them the most anxiety in this postseason, and it’s partly because of Stephen Curry’s defense.
The Rockets’ iso-heavy offense is out to take advantage of arguably the most glaring weakness of the Warriors. They succeeded in it in Game 2 and they are expected to zero in on the two-time league MVP’s defense again in Game 3.
As the most vulnerable Warrior on defense, it just makes sense for Curry to have a large target on his back in this series. Curry is well aware of that and knew what was coming for him before Game 2, even trying his best to sound confident in the face of a looming abuse the Rockets had prepared for him.
“If I was the opposite coach and saw Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green, I’m most likely going to (go after) me – especially for a team that relies on iso situations like they do,” Curry told USA TODAY Sports after practice on Tuesday. “Cleveland has done it for years. My whole goal is that if you want to abandon (your) normal offense to try to pick on me and put me in mismatch situations or whatever it is, then over the course of 48 (minutes), I’m going to get enough stops to figure it out.”
Back in the series opener, the Rockets wasted no time setting this game plan in motion by attacking Curry right away.
However, it did not pan out the way Houston wanted it to be, as the Rockets only sank 45 percent of their shots from the field against Curry. The Rockets also finished the game with a 45.9 field goal percentage.
Despite the minimal success, the Rockets continued to pound the rock often on whoever Curry was covering in Game 2. This time around, they gave the ball to Curry’s man 23 times. Of those possessions, Houston went 7-for-15 from the field. Clearly, the Rockets are hell-bent on exposing Curry.
If they are going to the finals, they want it done in a way that would leave Stephen Curry looking like he just participated in 12 rounds with current boxing KO-artist Gennady Golovkin.
Getting Durant in the summer of 2016 was supposed to make the Warriors invincible. At that moment everybody knew that Durant was going to be a Warrior, it sounded to the other 29 teams as if a nuclear bomb just exploded nearby.
Curry became less of a defensive liability with the arrival of Durant. With another former MVP around, the Warriors were not only receiving yet another lethal scorer, but an improved ability to mask Curry’s shortcomings on defense, which was something they were already having success doing before with Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, and Klay Thompson providing excellent two-way plays.
It may be harder to take advantage of Curry’s defense with Durant on the floor, but that obviously is not stopping the Rockets from entering games in the series and handpicking Curry as the person they would want to fight in a brawl – whether he likes it or not.
It’s a bit premature to say that going after Curry’s faulty defense would lead to the Rockets taking down Golden State. After all, doing exactly that did not give them a win in Game 1.
While the Rockets emerged victorious in Game 2, crediting that triumph to the way they made Curry work on defense would be to forget the fact that Thompson went from blowing kisses to the Rockets’ crowd in Game 1 to blowing shots on Wednesday when he went just 3-for-11 from the field for a paltry total of eight points (he had 28 in the previous outing.)
More importantly, it devalues the other great thing the Rockets are doing that still involves Curry. The Rockets’ terrific job of keeping the sharpshooter in check is the more sensible reason why the series is knotted at one win apiece instead of Golden State heading home for Game 3 with a 2-0 series lead in the bag.
PJ Tucker nearly outscoring the Splash Brothers has something to do with it as well.
Curry has not been Stephen Curry offensively the past two games, driving people to wonder whether he’s still feeling the effects of a knee injury that took him nearly two months to recover from. Curry is averaging 22.0 points with a 46.5 field goal percentage in six games in the playoffs. In two meetings with the Rockets, he’s only put up 17.0 points on 44.1 percent shooting.
Before people attribute Curry’s subpar offense to any lingering knee pain, consider that the Rockets have been consistently making life uncomfortable for the spitfire guard, who has yet to click from deep. Curry has knocked down just two of his 13 3-point attempts for an ugly 15.4 percent clip from behind the arc thus far in the series.
Plus, if Curry is really feeling any residue of pain from his recent injury, then it would have been unlikely for him to make Kamikaze attempts like this.
Curry getting Capela back from Game 1 pic.twitter.com/Mz5J6ahzWA
— BBALLBREAKDOWN (@bballbreakdown) May 17, 2018
Given that the Warriors don’t have a lot of dents in the armor, the Rockets are going to exploit whatever weakness Golden State has that they could detect. That includes repeatedly targeting Curry’s fragile one-on-one defense. However, it’s just not going to be enough for them to reach four wins in the series before the Warriors do.