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Did the Houston Rockets Find the Secret to Shutting Down Steph Curry?

Will Gottlieb@@wontgottliebFeatured Columnist IMay 6, 2019

(Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Sometimes, it's just chance when a great shooter has a terrible shooting night.

Other times, it is no accident.

In a 126-121 overtime victory over the Golden State Warriors in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals, the Houston Rockets, with incredible attention to detail and a little bit of luck, held the greatest shooter in NBA history to 7-of-23 from the field and 2-of-9 from behind the arc.

To compete against the Warriors, you have to play almost perfectly. To beat them, your mental focus must be at its sharpest for 48-plus minutes.

The Rockets have been preparing for this moment too long to have mental lapses that cost them points. They were all over the Warriors' split action, switching the top to prevent Curry from sliding over into an easy three and forcing Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant into tricky and contested in-between shots.

The Rockets made it a point to contest with high hands and take away the three. Though Curry made his first attempt, they tightened their closeouts not only to take away the initial look but also to prevent a pump fake and step over for another open look.

By trying to remove the Warriors' pet plays and eliminate simple looks from the offense, the Rockets defense prevented Curry from ever being able to turn it on. 

"I thought he was really trying to get himself going early in the game, maybe took a couple quick ones, but I'm fine with that," Golden State head coach Steve Kerr said at practice following the game. "Whatever it takes for Steph to get a groove, that's what he's going to do. So I thought he got really good shots, and the ones at the rim are ones that he normally makes. It's just a tough night for him."

Whenever Curry does have a tough shooting start to a game or a team is actively taking away cutting lanes, the Warriors' motion offense looks for driving lanes. Knowing help awaited on the interior, the Rockets' defensive game plan emphasized removing the three, even at the expense of a drive.

Those missed shots on the interior are uncharacteristic of Curry and show how a little luck benefited Houston. Curry, a 59.4 percent finisher at the rim this season, shot 2-of-9 in that area, blowing open looks and struggling to punish bigs on switches.

And then came the missed dunk that capped off a brutal night.

Whether or not the dislocated finger messed with Curry, his struggles snowballed throughout the fourth quarter and overtime, during which he did not make a field goal. But if Draymond Green's post-game remarks are accurate, that won't affect him moving forward: 

"I think Steph has a good balance of beating himself up and just moving on with life. And I think that's important. It's part of the reason he's the shooter that he is. I think if you talk to anyone who plays basketball, the toughest thing is to miss shots and keep shooting. Your confidence wavers, you start to think—Steph will miss four in a row and then heat-check the fifth one. Like from 35 feet. I don't know if that's good or bad, but it [works] for him."

Though Curry had some loud misses and left the game looking like the reason the Warriors lost, he still found a way to add some value. His shooting ability still drew two defenders whenever he came off a screen and led to easy buckets for his teammates all over the court.

Curry's scoring wasn't there Saturday night, but he helped where he could. In addition to those assists, he held Harden to four points on five possessions and allowed one point on 10 possessions to Chris Paul, per NBA.com's matchup data. Three of those five combined points came on foul shots.

He just had a rough shooting night, which is only so notable because of how rare those occurrences are.

"As a competitor I know he's pissed with himself and I think that will bode well for us," Green told reporters after the game. "Probably it's going to lead to some aggressiveness and we like when he's aggressive so I think he'll be fine."

Limiting Curry is nearly impossible. When you overplay the three, it leaves the driving lanes wide open. When you drop back to wall off the paint, he can rain threes from any distance. The Rockets squashed some of the Warriors' pet plays to throw Curry off at the start, but Game 5 will tell us whether they can continue that aggressive defensive scheme or if the two-time MVP's off night was exacerbated by some potentially flukey finishing. 

One thing is certain: It won't be quite as easy. The truly great ones use those uncharacteristic performances as motivation.

"He's just really, really competitive and he gets locked in and he gets a little bit angry. He comes out with a lot of focus and a lot of fight," Kerr said about his star point guard's resiliency a day before Monday's Game 4. "So that's what we're expecting tomorrow."

Follow Will on Twitter @wontgottlieb

All stats in this story are from ESPN and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. 

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