As the Rockets trailed the Warriors by 13 points midway through the third quarter of Sunday’s Game 3, I turned to The Ringer’s Tommy Alter, who was seated next to me, and said, “This game isn’t over. Houston can heat up.” Golden State had built its lead despite Steph Curry failing to find his shot, while the Rockets had missed makeable layups and open 3s.
What a bad take. Curry erupted for 18 points in the third quarter, and the Oracle Arena crowd got louder with every shot he took. Curry and Kevin Durant ended up scoring more combined points (60) than the entire Rockets starting five (58). And Curry alone had more points (35) than James Harden (20 points on 16 shots) and Chris Paul (13 points on 16 shots) combined. “We’ve seen this so many times with Steph. All it takes is one,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said after the Warriors’ 126-85 win. “This guy is a two-time MVP.”
There’s no margin for error against the Warriors, who have been obviously better than the Rockets (and every other team in the NBA) ever since signing Durant—whose remarkable two-way performance (25 points, six assists, six rebounds, and stellar defense) got overshadowed by Curry’s resurgence. Houston missed a few box-outs and committed some weak fouls at the end of the first quarter, which led to a 22-22 game ballooning into an 11-point halftime lead for the Warriors. But it’s not as if the Rockets had a lousy game plan. As Kerr said, both teams played the same way. The results were just different.
Keep your eyes on Curry in the play above and you’ll witness a game within a game. Houston’s versatile defense forced the Warriors to use elaborate off-ball movements to generate offense to a greater extreme than a normal defense would. As ESPN’s Zach Lowe detailed, the Rockets muted those deceptive cuts and slip screens in Game 2, but the Warriors are the best team in the NBA at them. They’re going to get open shots eventually. Even if Curry were covered on his layup, Andre Iguodala would’ve been open on the cut. “Our offense was really flowing when it comes to hitting singles, as Coach would say,” Curry said after the game. “From there, it was kind of an avalanche, and it felt good.”
The Warriors ended the game scoring 1.3 points per possession on 12 cuts, per Synergy, but they still leaned heavily on isolations to create separation at the end of the first quarter and at the start of the second half. They’ve logged more isolation and post-up possessions combined than Houston. The Rockets had the greatest isolation-scoring season in recorded history, but Golden State can play Houston’s song better.
Virtually any time Harden is matched up against Durant, the Warriors let KD feast on unstoppable pull-ups from 3 and post turnarounds. And when Curry gets going as he did in the third quarter, there’s absolutely no answer.
Well, except for attacking Curry on the other end of the floor, which the Rockets continued to do by forcing switches to get Curry matched up on Harden, or anyone else for that matter. But Curry is battling, and his teammates are covering for him by rotating perfectly.
Gerald Green nearly breaks Curry’s ankles, but keep your eyes on both Draymond Green and Kevon Looney anticipating the penetration. Draymond stops Green, and then Looney buries Luc Mbah a Moute.
The fact Mbah a Moute is shooting only 3-for-14 from 3 since returning from a shoulder injury is a major issue for the Rockets. The Warriors can sag off of him, which limits the Rockets’ attacking lanes and leads to layups, drawn fouls, and kickouts for more open 3s.
The Rockets got in the lane plenty, though, but shot just 17-for-36 within 8 feet (compared to 27-for-39 in Game 2). Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni attributed an excess of transition offense for the Warriors to sloppy turnovers in the first quarter, which is true. Though botched layups typically lead to open shots going the other way, Golden State scored only 13 points directly following Houston’s 19 misses inside. The Warriors didn’t make the Rockets pay, but they did a better job of contesting potential looks to force the misses—or as multiple Warriors said after the game, they played “smarter and harder.”
In the play above, Harden gets into the paint and forces the Warriors to rotate, which is exactly what the Rockets want. But look at how Andre Iguodala and Klay Thompson work together to contain Paul. First, Iguodala runs Paul off the line; then Thompson is there to steer him toward the corner of the lane rather than the rim itself before blocking his shot.
Thompson was a menace all game for Paul. Midway through the third quarter, the Warriors guard blocked what initially appeared to be a wide-open 3.
A few minutes later, Draymond contained Paul again.
“You have to man up and guard him,” Draymond said after the game. “We showed some resistance tonight, and that led to the offense that we were able to produce.” It wasn’t long before Curry twisted the knife and the game was over. Sunday marked the third game that Paul didn’t resemble the All-NBA player that the Rockets need to have any chance in this series; so far in the conference finals, he’s scored 52 points on 47 shots with only 13 assists. The whole point of adding Paul was to have a second elite point guard who could ease the load on Harden, but whether he’s hampered by an apparent leg injury or not, he’s not playing at the level he needs to, especially from 3 (5-for-20 this series).
Aside from their Game 2 explosion, hitting 3s has been a team-wide issue for the Rockets. And that basically tells the story of their series thus far. Their game plan is good. They’re attacking Curry, getting into the paint, and making life relatively hard on the Warriors by forcing them into isos and wacky cutting actions. But if the Rockets aren’t hitting shots, they have no chance. When the Warriors are clicking like they were in Game 3, every single Rockets player needs to be on, or else it’s over.
We already knew that, though. General manager Daryl Morey said so himself in February 2017 when he admitted the Rockets “absolutely figured” the only way they could beat the Warriors would be with a “barrage of 3-pointers.” Morey’s statement came months before they added Paul, but it remains true to this day. The Rockets got the hot shooting they needed in Game 2, hitting 16 of 42 triples; in Game 3, they were ice cold (at least by their standards), hitting only 11 of 34 shots from behind the arc.
Then again, they could’ve hit an additional 13 of their 3s and it still wouldn’t have been enough to make up the difference from their 41-point deficit. The Rockets weren’t nearly as bad as the score indicates, and this series certainly isn’t over if they get hot from 3. But as Game 3 showed, when Curry goes nuclear, the Warriors are unbeatable.