Stephen Curry had just finished the second of his worst two shooting performances in his playoff career. The Golden State Warriors had lost Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals by 22 to a more physical — arguably more desperate — Houston Rockets team.
The Warriors were battered, certainly soundly beaten, and hadn’t shown any of the joy or verve for which they’re known. Then, at the podium during postgame, Steve Kerr was asked how much of an effect Curry’s sprained MCL had on his performance.
Never mind the fact that Curry had scored 28 points in his first game back against the New Orleans Pelicans, or 23 in Game 4 or 28 in Game 5, increasing his minutes in each game. It was the 2-for-13 from three over the last two games that was at issue.
Kerr smirked. “13.7 percent,” he said.
That, right there — that smirk — that’s why the Warriors are winning this series.
This is what the Warriors do: They beat you up, take your lunch money and steal your girl, and then they laugh in your face. They blow kisses. They shimmy. They joke and they laugh. They have fun.
There’s a thin line between confidence and cockiness, and the Warriors play jump-rope with it. With every kiss Klay Thompson blows the crowd, with every shimmy Curry shakes after a three from Fremont, more poison is poured into Old Hamlet’s ear — Old Hamlet, in this case, being the Rockets.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey himself has said that his organization is “obsessed with” beating the Warriors. He constructed his team to put up as many three-pointers as possible, and this season, they jacked up a league-leading 41 per game. He constructed them to do exactly what they did on Wednesday night.
“We played harder,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We got into them. They felt us physically. We didn’t quite have that same intensity in the first game. Our guys are great and they learned from it, snapped back and did the job.”
Forcing Curry to guard James Harden — and do it without fouling — on isolation plays certainly seems to have taken Curry’s legs out from under him on the offensive end. Curry said before the series that, were he the Rockets, he would send Harden at him on “Every. Single. Play.” He knew it was coming. He still couldn’t stop it.
That led to a certain constipation on the offensive end, a frustration, an inability to get clean, open looks, a lack of rhythm. That all started with Curry.
“We got into people. They missed it, and we were able to run,” D’Antoni said. “That way we get more people involved. If we have to walk it up every time, then that’s a lot of isos.”
Except while D’Antoni said his team would rather “get out and run,” that’s not been their M.O. at all this season.
That’s been the Warriors’ calling card.
During the regular season, the Warriors were the No. 1 team in the league in transition, with 1.25 points per possession when they get out and run. The Rockets scored 1.08. The Warriors were the No. 2 team in the league shooting off the catch. The Rockets were 11th.
This is what the Warriors do: They bait you into playing their game. The Rockets can go fast, yes, but they were the slowest team in the NBA during the regular season, according to the league’s official stats. The fastest team still left standing? Golden State.
Almost everything went right for the Rockets in Game 1: Harden scored 41 points and went 8-for-10 at the foul line, Chris Paul scored 23, the Rockets shot 37 threes and hit 13. Curry had an off night (18 points, but eight assists), and aside from Kevin Durant’s 37 points of insanity, the Warriors overall played a B-minus game. They had just 283 passes — 40 below where Kerr wants them to be — and had assists on 24 of 42 field goals (57.1 percent). They shot a pedestrian, for them, 13-of-33 from three. They still won by double digits.
In contrast, in Game 2, just about everything went wrong for Golden State. They passed the ball just 272 times, assisted on 53.8 percent of field goals and hit 9-of-30 from beyond the arc. With Curry having his second 1-for night from three in a row — a first for him during his postseason career — and Thompson going 3-of-11 from the floor and 2-of-4 from three, of course the Rockets took advantage.
“Our defense wasn’t connected,” Kerr said. “We weren’t on the same page on a lot of plays where we got a little out of sorts.”
The last time Thompson threw up four or fewer three-point attempts in a game was March 2, in a 114-109 win over the Atlanta Hawks, a game where he shot 6-of-9 from the field. Before that, the last time was against Phoenix on February 12, when he went 2-for-4. He shot 7-of-12 from the field that night in a 129-83 win.
The only comparable game to last night, for Thompson — arguably the best jump shooter in the NBA — was a 4-for-10 night from the field, and 0-for-3 three-point performance against the Warriors’ likely opponents in the finals, the Boston Celtics, on Jan. 23. The Warriors still won that game, 109-105.
For him and Curry and Draymond Green (six rebounds, six assists and six points, perhaps giving credence to opposing fanbases asserting that he’s the Devil incarnate) to have off nights? It’s a fool’s bet to wager it’ll happen again, much less a second game in a row.
All that is to say this: If the Rockets think they have Golden State’s number, the Warriors have Houston right where they want them. Even after that debacle in Texas, Golden State returns home to a seven-point advantage at the sports book. They come home to 19,596 of their best friends. They come home having stolen home-court advantage.
“Obviously, now the cliche is we came here and we did what we’re supposed to do, and it’s 1-1, and yada, yada, yada,” Curry said on Wednesday night. “That’s a good feeling, better than the alternative. Now we’ve got to go home and recalculate, figure out how to get the momentum back on our side. Get our home crowd into it and should be in good shape.”
Ryan Gorcey is the sports editor of the San Francisco Examiner. He grew up a Dodger fan and graduated from Cal, so he’s used to crushing disappointment, yet is oddly optimistic. Or just plain odd. Follow him on Twitter at @RyanGorcey or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.