OAKLAND, Calif. — For Stephen Curry, the first 10 quarters of the Western Conference Finals were more about defense than offense. The Houston Rockets ran pick-and-roll after pick-and-roll, relentlessly attacking Curry to get the mismatch they wanted. And the strategy worked for Houston.
But everything changed in Golden State's 126-85 Game 3 victory, as evidenced by Curry's 35 points on 13-of-23 shooting (5-of-12 from deep). But it did take some figuring out.
At this point in the playoffs, every player needs to play both sides of the ball—and Curry is no exception. He just was not right, and it was largely because the Rockets were constantly targeting him.
Houston's offense is predicated on taking advantage of the mismatches that come from the heavy switching schemes in the modern NBA. The team's slow and stagnant offense gets a lot of bad press for its dribble-heavy isolations and pick-and-roll, but this is the point. Harden gets to handpick his mismatch every time down the floor, and the Rockets trust he will make the right play.
Because of this, Curry had become the focal point of the Rockets offense, and his performance entering Game 3 on Sunday had made him the lynchpin of the series. Not only because of his inability to stop Harden, but also because of what it had done to his offense.
Curry's stat lines weren't exactly anemic, but something was up. He could still get to (and finish around) the rim, but the three-point shot was gone.
"It was frustrating more so because I had the right intentions in the first half," the star guard said of his shooting struggles. "I had, like, five wide-open threes and only one went in. Like I always say, never lose confidence. Keep searching in the right ways, find some openings and things will work out."
Through those first 10 quarters, Curry wasn't all that productive, save for his driving and finishing around the rim. Curry shot 60.5 percent at the rim this season but has upped the percentage to an incredible 78.4 during the playoffs. That's 12.9 percentage points higher than that of Clint Capela, the alley-oop finisher he's taking to the rim.
"I think he's consistently gotten to the rim in the first three games of this series, and he scores," head coach Steve Kerr said. "So that's why I didn't think there was anything going on physically. He's looked great the last couple games, getting past his man and finishing at the rim. He did that again tonight, but the difference was that he got the three-point shot going too."
For Curry, it's just biding his time, taking what the defense gives him and having confidence that the shots will fall.
"They do a lot of switching; they try to press up on the three-point line and take away any daylight. When you have that much space, it's a little easier to get into the paint, finish at the rim, probe and kick out to the weak side. That's how I got my first three in the first half, was probing, bringing two [defenders] to the ball, giving it up and relocating.
"You can't press," he continued. "That's the biggest thing I did in Game 2. If the three's not there, that's fine—there's plenty of things I can do on the court to get the offense going. Obviously, I like to shoot threes. I'm gonna keep shooting them, but you gotta be smart about how you orchestrate the offense, how you orchestrate those kinds of possessions."
Curry has taken 26 shots in the restricted area through the first three games of the series. That number is higher than usual because the drives were all he could get in the first two games.
You saw him trying to force his way back into his rhythm by taking some 'old-Steph' shots early on in Game 3. But the Rockets' targeting had largely caused him to go cold.
Curry's third-quarter eruption wasn't just regression to the mean. It wasn't just breaking out of a slump. The Warriors shifted their defensive strategy, and that seemed to help Curry get out of his head and start hitting his shots.
After Game 2, Curry said, "We were being too cute with our exchanges and switches, instead of just manning up and playing 1-on-1 defense."
Early on during Game 3, that's exactly what they were doing: trying to avoid Curry having to switch onto Harden at all costs.
In the third quarter, instead of worrying about pre-switching screens or showing and recovering, he started to "man up," as both he and Green said postgame, and play defense. Of course, it helps when Harden is only 7-of-16 from the field with five free-throw attempts, but the simplicity appeared to help, because Curry began to groove as soon as the Warriors changed their scheme.
And then, as Kerr put it, "the dam broke."
"I already know, I already know," Curry said of his "This is my f--king house" outburst. "I blacked out. I was just talking to myself almost. You gotta be your biggest fan sometimes."
"His three is similar to some people's dunk," Green explained. "You go to certain arenas and a guy gets a dunk and it's absurd. That's how his three-ball is. Definitely a lot of support, the fans were great tonight. I think he had a great quarter during that third quarter. I don't mean to disappoint, but I've seen crazier from him."
The Rockets won't change their blueprint in Game 4. They'll keep going at Curry and hoping their targeting strategy causes him to struggle on offense.
But for the Warriors, the momentum has shifted. If they can keep getting stops and Curry keeps on at this pace, their Game 2 loss will be a distant memory as they continue pushing closer to their fourth straight NBA Finals appearance.