All of the good, bad, and stepback 3s of Saturday’s Warriors-Rockets game.
Game 3: Rockets 126, Warriors 121
Loser: Steph Curry
The Warriors faced a three-point deficit with less than two minutes left, and the ball was in Steph Curry’s hands. The past half-decade has conditioned us to expect a certain outcome. Curry would hit a 3, follow it up with another impossible shot seconds later, and suddenly the Warriors would lead; the Warriors would win. But in overtime of Game 3 against the Rockets on Saturday night, Steph served a plot twist straight out of an M. Night Shyamalan movie. Curry drove to the hoop and missed what should have been an easy layup with his left hand. James Harden responded with a stepback jumper. Six-point game. With 20 seconds left in overtime and in a five-point game, Curry got the ball again, dribbled smoothly through the Rockets defense and had another shot—this time, a free runway to the hoop. But he overcorrected, went up to dunk it, and was rejected by the rim, point blank. Curry’s superpowers had been sapped from him. All the Rockets had to do was run out the clock.
Curry’s allure has always lied in his extraordinary talents manifesting from a seemingly ordinary human frame. But in Game 3, he was too human, missing five of his seven shots at the rim, shooting 7-of-23 from the field, and going 2-of-9 from 3. He finished with 17 points. Trying to dunk and getting stuffed by the rim with the game on the line is perhaps the most relatable thing Curry has ever done.
Of course, when a player this great has a game this bad, it’s plausible that it is largely due to health issues. Curry entered this series with a slight ankle injury, and in Game 2, he dislocated a finger in his left hand. Though he came back out to play after going into the locker room for a bit in that game, he hasn’t looked right all series. He’s shooting 25 percent from 3 and hasn’t yet scored over 20 points. He’s clearly banged up (though he didn’t excuse his performance), and if not for Kevin Durant—who has averaged 37 points in the series and had 46 in Game 3—the Warriors might not be up 2-1 in this series.
We won’t remember this game when he’s giving his Hall of Fame speech or getting his number retired at Chase Center, but for now, considering the stakes and the stage, it is not difficult to argue that we may have just witnessed the worst game of Curry’s career.
Winners: Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker
By talent alone, the Rockets’ two best players are Harden and Chris Paul. But through three games in this series, Gordon and Tucker have made cases for being the most valuable. The tandem has been reliable on both ends and though they don’t exude any flash or attract any kind of polarizing coverage, the Rockets would be lost without them. Gordon has been their metronome, averaging 24 points a game, and Tucker their fire.
Game 3 was the clearest example of their prowess so far. In the first half, Gordon was the only one hitting shots. He made four 3s in the first half and led everyone with 20 points. By the third, Houston began to hit 3s and gave itself a lead, but it wouldn’t have been possible without Gordon, who would go on to hit three more and finish with 30 points. After his 27 points in Game 1 went to waste, I thought Gordon wouldn’t have a better game, but he topped it and it resulted in a win. His work on defense, whether on the Splash Brothers (13-for-39) or on Durant, was also invaluable.
Speaking of defense: The Rockets threw multiple bodies at Durant, and though he finished with 43 points, it very easily felt like it could have been 60. Tucker was in his grill all game long, which put him in foul trouble early in the second half. But when he came back in the game, he made every minute count by staying clear of fouls while remaining aggressive near the rim. Tucker grabbed five offensive rebounds, each more crucial than the last, and the Rockets finished with a whopping 17 offensive boards—eight more than Golden State.
“He didn’t let us lose,” Mike D’Antoni said of Tucker, who seemed to outhustle and outmuscle every Warriors player to every loose ball. After combining for only 13 offensive rebounds in the first two games, that was the difference.
Winner: James Harden
With his left eye shaded in haunting blotches of dark red from the laceration he suffered in Game 2, Harden finally had a game that felt befitting of the Harden we saw throughout the regular season. Whatever vision ailments he had didn’t matter. Harden scored 41 points on 14-for-32 shooting and hit five of his 13 3s.
In many ways, it was the kind of performance we’ve come to not expect from Harden, or at least a pleasantly different one from the ones that have perpetuated the narrative that has followed him in the playoffs: that he can’t be clutch in the moments, games, and series that matter most. Game 3 was proof that he can be. Twenty-eight of his 41 points came in the second half and overtime, as did four of his five 3s—including one with 49 seconds left in the overtime period, the dagger before the actual dagger. The nail in the coffin came a few moments later when Harden drove in and dropped a floater (maybe it was a charge)—a shot that finally worked for him in Game 3 after two games of inconsistency from short range.
What is perhaps more encouraging for Houston is that Harden can have games that are even better than this one, and really, he might need to for the Rockets to truly have a chance in this series. Trust the eye drops.