If the most holistic measure of player greatness is how a player elevates those around him, there is no better player in the league than Stephen Curry. Obviously, there are more empirical statistics that point to the same conclusion, but there's a stark dichotomy between these dynastically-inclined Golden State Warriors when the reigning MVP plays versus when he sits. It's illuminating and fascinating and unbelievable all at the same time just how much a single player influences a 73-win roster.
But sometimes, a great player is injured. How a team responds to such hardships informs us of said team's character -- how strong the nucleus holds when its principal constituent has been forcibly removed. In many ways, that makes this Game Four more fascinating and enthralling than almost any other in the Stephen Curry - Draymond Green era.
The Warriors started out shooting the ball at their usual sterling standards, and hardly playing any defense on the other end of the court. The offense looked subpar at times, as their transmission struggled to click into higher gear; however it looked smoother than most of last game sans Curry. Then, suddenly, the team split at its seams like a stuffed animal's legs being pulled on in opposite directions by two wailing children.
It started with a calculated risk put on by coach Steve Kerr. With Curry's conditioning suboptimal after over a week of non-game action, he was subbed out midway through the first quarter. Seldom-used backups Ian Clark and James Michael McAdoo saw rare first-quarter play with a double-digit lead in hand. On balance, not an awful tactical decision, with Shaun Livingston's previous two outings seeing extended minutes (and battling a sickness), which probably led to undisclosed fatigue.
Regardless the rhyme or reason, the results were catastrophic. The move allowed the Houston Rockets to find a rhythm and groove on offense, leading to them ultimately entering the second quarter with a tie ballgame which seemed to be teetering on the precipice of a Warrior-controlled game mere moments earlier. With the start of the second quarter, Curry, Shaun Livingston, and Marreese Speights saw rare minutes together as the unusual rotations continued.
But the damage had been done: Michael Beasley had found a rhythm in the midrange, which allowed the Rockets to continually punish a hapless Harrison Barnes (who was largely in absentia in every phase of the game once again; aka "Playoff Barnes") out of the right post. Livingston doubled to no avail as the Rockets found free money with Beasley's positive contributions. The Rockets gradually shifted to a James Harden-centric attack, as the Rockets are wont to do. Harden operated as a distributor for the majority of the half, finding Dwight Howard on lobs off the drive over Speights in what could most kindly be euphemistically described as an unmitigated disaster.
All told, a 17-point swing occurred between the middle of the first quarter and the early portion of the second. It was a gratuitous display of the Rockets in their element, as the steady stream of Harden free throws kept the Warriors from any sort of rhythm on offense. It was also a prime example of when the supercomputer inside Draymond Green's brain crosses a few bad wires, and the entire operation becomes buggy.
On one illuminating sequence, the Rockets shot seven free throws in one offensive possession. Howard, with Speights simply outmanned from a physical standpoint, grabbed an offensive rebound (which happened an awful lot -- the Warriors were dominated to a degree unseen in years on the boards with Speights in as a center) only to be fouled. On his second shot, Green committed a loose-ball foul for a second Rockets possession, side-line out-of-bounds. All the while, Patrick Beverley tried his best to continue getting under Curry's skin, bumping him and grabbing him as the two watched free throws being shot. After an intentional foul on Howard, two more shots were taken... only for Curry and Beverley to be whistled for dual lane violations on the perimeter. Howard controlled the ensuing jumpball, only for Andrew Bogut to foul a shooting Trevor Ariza behind the line.
And then the Warriors turned the ball over on two consecutive possessions after that ugly sequence.
Mental mistakes, which compounded on other mental mistakes, all while the Rockets doubled down and embraced the role of two-bit irritants. Seven free throw attempts, basketball devoid of flow, negative emotions. Your first half summed up.
Except not entirely.
After a couple minutes of discombobulated basketball, including offensive fouls from both sides, easy rebounds being fumbled right out of bounds, airballed open attempts, missed contested layups, defensive assignments being left wide open for corner threes (which largely went un-capitalized, because nothing went particularly well), chest-bumping other players, yapping, and the crowd jeering... Kerr stated the obvious, and told the Warriors they needed to "settle in".
Apparently, those were the words the Warriors needed to hear. They bridged the gap and retook the lead for a moment, on the back of some more Howard missed free throws. Andre Iguodala's play in the postseason remains timely and awe-inspiring.
Then tragedy struck, as Steph Curry slipped on a wet spot on the floor as time expired on the half, injuring his knee in what was described in the subsequent reports as a sprain "around the MCL area" of his right knee, although nothing official has been posted as of this writing. Curry limped severely as he staggered to the locker room; he had a pronounced getup in his walk after halftime, and ultimately was pulled from the lineup after gauging his own pain in the warmups.
The Warriors came out with the ferocity that they displayed when the season was young. Perhaps Draymond or Kerr fired up the team after their apathetic showing the first half. Perhaps they did not appreciate the grotesque way in which the Toyota Center (aptly described as "rocking" by the oblivious national broadcast team) responded to Curry spraining his knee in a frightening manner.
Rockets fans cheer as Steph Curry heads to the locker room & Shaun Livingston steps on court to start 3rdQ— Michael Lee (@MrMichaelLee) April 24, 2016
Oh, yeah, that happened. Sports can get ugly, and cheering/jeering/applause can be amplified by a loud minority in an arena (see Lacob being booed in Oracle). But, whatever. Bygones.
Whatever galvanized the Warriors, it worked. It worked like a tiny horned Draymond was personally chasing each Warrior around on the hardwood, prodding the players incessantly with a tiny red pitchfork, whispering incensing comments in their ears. Klay Thompson shot almost as good as Klay Thompson. Barnes threw his hat in the ring with a timely long-range make. Draymond himself contributed a few threes, as the Warriors hit eight threes in the first nine minutes, and cresting over 40 points overall in the quarter.
Defensively, the Warriors screwed the clamps down on a Rockets team, principally by keeping them off the foul line. The Rockets looked lost without that pacemaker comfortably restraining the Warriors. The Warriors turned defensive rebounds into transition passes and open shot attempts within a few seconds, and that is their highest gear. It was an avalanche of points which drowned the Rockets and silenced a viciously enthused Rockets crowd.
A vulgar display of power, of that talent gap. The Warriors outscored the buffoonish Rockets by 21 in 12 minutes, 41 points to 20. After a tie with the world's greatest basketball player spraining his knee at the half, the Warriors led by 21 at the end of three.
JB Bickerstaff begged his players to compete, for he saw that familiar look of indifference in his players' eyes. How helpless a feeling must be for a ship captain, who sees his crew beginning to accept the imminent collapse of the ship with a collective shrug. Mark Jackson astutely (Word underlined this as grammatically incorrect) characterized the third quarter as "one team realizing they need to elevate their play, while the other team breathing a sigh of relief".
The fourth quarter saw more of the same. Speights and Leandro Barbosa and even Ian Clark began to find open shots in the flow of the offense. Those auxiliary scorers finding and hitting shots was necessary with Curry in the locker room. James Harden sat for the first time all night at the beginning of the fourth, devolving the Warriors' defensive efforts largely to keeping Howard from getting deep position in the post and, if that failed, grabbing Howard.
The Warriors set an NBA postseason record with 21 three point makes as the obliteration stretched into the entire second half of the game. Panning shots showed utter desolation on the faces of the Houston Rockets. Well, that's a bit heavy. Apathy, or boredom, more strongly suits it.
The First Round tilt moves back to Oakland with the Warriors up, 3 - 1.