OAKLAND — With 2:05 left in the third quarter of Golden State’s 104-99 win over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night, Kevin Durant hit a 16-foot jumper over Iman Shumpert. As he came down, he grimaced. As he spun up the court to get back on defense, he favored his right leg. The Warriors called time out. Durant — with his 22 points — headed up the tunnel, and would not return.
DeMarcus Cousins — no strainger to leg injuries after an Achilles tear cost him nearly 12 months, and a left quad tear knocked him out of Game 2 against the Clippers — brought the Warriors back into focus.
“Alright, you’ll be fine, go play the game,” Cousins told the huddle. Draymond Green added that it was time for the next man to step up.
Deprived of Cousins and Durant, the Warriors — who had seen a 20-point lead slip away — reverted to the team that won the NBA title in 2015, one with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson at its heart. On a night that saw Golden State experience its entire season in the span of 48 minutes, it was once again the Splash Brothers that brought the house down, and gave the Warriors a 3-2 lead in the Western Conference Semifinals.
“Liverpool yesterday came out with just one of the great wins in soccer history,” head coach Steve Kerr said. “After the match, their manager Jurgen Klopp said, ‘The young kids in Liverpool are probably asleep right now, so I’m just going to go ahead and say it, but our boys are fucking giants … I know how he feels. I apologize to my mom, but our guys are fucking giants.”
Right before Durant went down, Curry had missed a wide-open layup in transition. It was Curry’s lowest moment. In the midst of a difficult, physical series that’s seen the two-time MVP shoot 39.5% from the field over the first four games, the Durant injury jolted him.
“During the timeout, we all looked at each other,” Curry said. “There were a couple smiles in terms of what that meant for us as a team, the guys that were going to need to step up in those moments.”
Without Durant — who will have an MRI on Thursday — it was Curry and Thompson, in the midst of a series-long shooting slump (24-for-62 from the field, 8-for-26 from three in the series) who took over down the stretch.
“I think when Kevin went out, Steph just went into a different mindset,” Kerr said. “Kind of reminded me of four, five years ago before we had Kevin, we were heavily dependent on Steph generating a lot of our offense back then. He doesn’t have as big of a burden on his shoulders now. He’s fully capable of taking on that burden when necessary. Tonight, it was necessary.”
After leading by as many as 20 in the second quarter, thanks to a hot start from Thompson (who scored 12 in the first quarter), the Warriors came out of the locker room seemingly in a daze. The same malaise that at times gripped them during what felt like a perfunctory regular season struck again, as they turned the ball over nine times and turned a 24-12 advantage on points in the paint to a slim 28-24 margin. Golden State was outscored 29-15 in the third quarter, and Houston pulled ahead for the first time with 40 seconds to go. With 8:54 left in regulation, Shumpert gave the Rockets a two-point lead.
Then came Curry, who hit a 29-foot three off an assist from Draymond Green (one of his game-high 11). Curry scored 12 points in the fourth, going 4-of-4 at the free throw line and drilling a pair of 3-pointers.
“It was a breakthrough,” said Curry, who finished with 25.
After going scoreless in the first quarter and 0-for-4 to start, Curry went 3-of-7 in the fourth quarter, while Thompson went 3-of-5. With 5:09 to go, Thompson hit a 14-foot fadeaway and Curry hit a rise-up three to get the Warriors up 89-85, bringing the crowd to its feet.
“He was absolutely brilliant when we needed him,” Kerr said.
With 3:22 left, Green — who pulled down a team-high 12 rebounds — buried a 3-pointer from the top of the arc, cupping his hands to his ears to bring the crowd to its peak. They had been hot all night, but this was his chance to get them to boil over. A Thompson 27-footer off a Kevon Looney rebound — one of his five offensive boards on the night — sent them into a tizzy, and put Golden State up 97-89.
After missing a driving floater with less than a minute to go, up by four, Curry got his own rebound and drew a foul by Chris Paul. He hit both free throws.
“I think everybody in the world trusts him with the ball in his hands,” said Thompson, who finished with 27. “You saw how savvy he was with the O rebound, missed the floater long, but stuck in the paint, two huge free throws from it. That’s just the kind of competitor he is. He’ll do anything to win.”
After a wild left-handed Thompson layup off a Looney assist with 4.1 seconds left, Curry crouched down in reflection at mid-court as the final buzzer sounded.
“All the things that happened tonight, in terms of how we started the game, got out to the huge lead, kind of flamed out at the end of the second quarter … what happens to KD in the third,” Curry said, ” … all the different rollercoaster of emotions tonight. At the end of the day, it’s about winning or losing, trying to endure to the finish line. We were able to do that tonight.”