SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick breaks down how the Warriors stole Game 1 of the Western Conference finals in Houston, and what the Rockets must do to rebound in Game 2.
USA TODAY Sports
HOUSTON — Steph Curry gets it.
The Golden State star knows why the Houston Rockets are picking on him in these Western Conference finals, following through on their “weakest link” defensive strategy that Eric Gordon broadcast when these two teams met back in January and that is likely to continue in Game 2 on Wednesday. He’s been dealing with this for years, battling the perception that he’s not a two-way player while somehow managing to wind up on top far more often than not.
So he’ll fight through all those screens like he did in the Warriors’ Game 1 win on Monday, hoping the left knee that took nearly six weeks to heal from a Grade 2 MCL sprain late in the regular season holds up. He’ll dig his heels in when he finds himself on an island with James Harden for the umpteenth time, then yield some of the scoring duties to the other future Hall of Famers on this loaded Warriors roster. And then, should the Rockets’ obsession with this approach leave their offense out of balance again, he’ll know it was a job well done.
If this is how Houston plans on taking down the defending champs, with the ball-pounding style so prevalent in Game 1 that it led to more than twice the isolation plays than the Rockets typically average (45, compared to 22) and more in one game than any team in the past five seasons, then Curry is just fine doing this defensive deed.
“If I was the opposite coach and saw Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green, I’m most likely going to (go after) me – especially for a team that relies on iso situations like they do,” Curry told USA TODAY Sports after practice on Tuesday. “Cleveland has done it for years. My whole goal is that if you want to abandon (your) normal offense to try to pick on me and put me in mismatch situations or whatever it is, then over the course of 48 (minutes), I’m going to get enough stops to figure it out.”
If Game 1 was any indication, Curry speaks the truth.
Only 12 of Harden’s 41 points came against Curry, who was the primary defender six times when Harden misfired and five times on makes (four of the misses, it should be noted, came in the final 1:39 of play when the Warriors were up big). Curry’s two steals on Harden were key, with one coming midway through the third quarter and the other midway through the fourth.
“Those two plays were timely,” Curry remembered. “We were up six on the first one, and those are kind of the make-or-break points where you extend the lead to double digits or (let them back in). And then the fourth quarter, same thing. You’re kind of killing a last minute run, and their momentum.
“I was joking with somebody in the locker room, saying if I’m in that situation (getting targeted on defense) for however many possessions it was, I’m going to make some plays. It’s just a matter of not having many breakdowns.”
There were a few, of course. Sixteen seconds in, Curry stayed with Trevor Ariza on the perimeter when he was supposed to switch to Harden.
That wide-open three, followed by another one on Curry less than two minutes later, helped Houston get off to a 9-2 run. But by the time it was all over, he felt good about the effort.
The irony of this approach? Curry and the Warriors learned a few years ago that this offensive approach has its limits.
Before Steve Kerr was hired as coach in the summer of 2014, when the pass became such a staple in their offense as they focused on moving it at least 300 times per game, the Mark Jackson Warriors were far more focused on isolation play. They were never nearly as prolific as these Rockets, but there is a common thread there nonetheless.
In those years since, the three consecutive Finals matchups with the Cavs have served as a Masterclass of sorts for this experience.
“Cleveland did it a lot,” Curry said. “It didn’t end up in an iso situation with me and ‘Bron (LeBron James) most of the time, but they would initiate most of their offense with a ball screen with either J.R. (Smith) or … Iman Shumpert, sometimes with Kyrie (Irving), and they would try to create confusion off of that initial action, or at the end of the shot clock try to get me in a post-up situation with Bron.
“It’s kind of a two-way sword. One, sometimes you’re going to get scored on. It’s the NBA. There’s talented guys. James (Harden) averaged 30 a game for a reason, but at the end of the day like I said, I’m going to get enough stops to hopefully have that matchup be to our advantage over the course of a game.”