Stephen Curry is a two-time Most Valuable Player, being the first player to have garnered a unanimous vote in 2016. He is universally recognized as the greatest shooter of all time. With his 2,483 career 3-point shots made, he is 3rd all time behind Ray Allen and Reggie Miller, and it is safe to say that he will shoot past them and snatch the number one spot for himself. Curry is one of the greatest players to have played the game of basketball — and his status as a force of nature has altered the very fabric of the NBA for years to come.
That same Stephen Curry had 0 points going into halftime of Game 6 against the Houston Rockets. Yet the Warriors were able to hang on to keep the score at 57-all as the game transitioned into its championship rounds.
Curry is undeniably the face of the franchise, its most beloved figure, and its original bonafide superstar. Yet when the franchise’s current best player, Kevin Durant, was sidelined with a calf injury — never to return to this bloodbath of a series against the Rockets — Curry couldn’t find it within himself to summon his MVP pedigree, the clutch gene that the majority of NBA fandom place so much premium in.
Their superstar was struggling, but the rest of the team wasn’t. Strength in Numbers has been the motto of the Warriors all throughout their 5-year dynastic run, but Strength in Numbers this year was looking more like Strength in Superstardom. But with Durant out, it was left to Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and the rest of the supporting cast to dig deep and rediscover that same identity that built the foundation of their dynasty.
And boy, did they deliver.
Thompson, in particular, has made it a habit to take ownership of the ever-crucial Game 6. Warriors’ fans remember all too well his Game 6 performance against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2016 Western Conference finals, when he scored 41 points and set a playoff record for most 3-point shots made in a single game with 11.
In a similar manner, Thompson came up big against the Rockets in last season’s Western Conference finals, scoring 35 points on 9-for-14 shooting from beyond the arc.
Thompson is an absolute killer, a clutch performer whenever the Warriors need him to bail them out when their backs are against the wall. With Curry struggling out of the gate, the Warriors called upon Thompson to deliver another series-saving performance once again, and it was a call that he answered, as he always has.
The very first play of the game involved a Thompson bucket off of a great defensive sequence, where Andre Iguodala deflects a James Harden pass that leads to a Thompson pull-up 3.
It was Thompson’s resolve early in the 1st quarter that allowed the Warriors to stay in the game, to give the Rockets the message that they weren’t going to have an easy time in their home court. In these two sequences, Thompson takes it upon himself to score with Curry sitting down with two early fouls.
Thompson scored 10 points in the 1st quarter alone, while Curry continued to struggle, failing to score in the 2nd quarter and closing out the half without a single point. But his teammates propped him up and gave him backup. Thompson, especially, continued to score in the 2nd quarter, living up to his nature as an inevitable clutch performer in a Game 6.
Despite the absence of both Curry and Durant’s scoring in the first half, the Warriors were able to stick around with the full-strength Rockets, who weren’t able to fend off a depleted team who could’ve easily bent over backwards and allowed their adversaries to take over and run them out of the building.
During the second half, the Rockets tried their best to gain separation from the Warriors. They shot their threes, they played defense, and they tried to lean on their two superstars to lead them toward a victory and a potential series-clinching performance in Game 7.
But the Warriors kept fighting back. Every run by the Rockets would be met by a run of their own. They would make them pay for every mistake they committed. When everyone thought that the Warriors would have to solely rely on their star talent to see them through, the supporting cast stepped up, seemingly coming out of magically-created portals in time to give their captains much-needed support.
Strength in Numbers made a reappearance last night. And when it was time for them to return the reins to their captain, he carried them over the hump — past their fiercest rivals — and sent them back to the drawing board, back to square one for the second season in a row.
The player who seemingly wouldn’t have made a difference last year — a player who detractors said did not and would not have made an impact regardless of his injury status — proved those detractors mightily wrong.
As the second half began, Andre Iguodala had already buried a single 3 during the 1st quarter. He would open the half for the Warriors by knocking down another 3 to regain the lead for the Warriors after the Rockets drew first blood.
Having scored a donut in the first half, Curry began his rejuvenation campaign in the second half with this drive to the rim, made possible by Thompson’s off-ball weak side movement that clears a driving lane for Curry.
“It’s funny because everybody, even (Iman Shumpert) talk about it all the time, say ‘Make the other guys beat you.’ Iguodala, how many threes he hit? Five out of eight,” Chris Paul said after the game. “You say make the other guys beat you and they damn sure did that.”
Here is another one of those 5 Iguodala threes, where the Rockets’ defense left him open and dared him to knock down a shot. Curry draws plenty of attention, leaving Iguodala alone to knock down what amounts to be a practice shot.
On the other end, Iguodala snuffs out a Rockets’ double drag screen action. He anticipates a pocket pass to the rolling Nene and intercepts the ball, which leads to a transition 3 from Thompson on the other end.
Curry starts to get a rhythm on offense. He scores five points on two possessions, first from a floater, and the second from a relocation catch-and-shoot 3 after initially getting trapped. He scores a total of 10 points in the quarter, but the Warriors trail the Rockets by five points going into the 4th.
Iguodala started off the previous quarter with a 3, and he starts off the 4th quarter with his fifth 3 of the night. Again, the Rockets dare Iguodala to beat them, leaving him wide open on a jumper that he buries to make them pay dearly.
Curry goes on a flurry to tie the game at 97-all. He scores a total of 7 points, beating the Rockets on drives and allowing them no time to switch or otherwise hamper his forays to the rim. Additionally, he gets plenty of space on a 3-point shot, courtesy of Clint Capela’s failure to deny him any shooting space whatsoever.
To break the deadlock, the Warriors return to their patented and reliable Curry/Green pick-and-roll, where Green sets a high screen, slips it, and receives the pass on the short roll. A 2-on-1 situation is created, where Capela is left on an island against Green and Kevon Looney behind him. Easy points are often generated from this action, and the Warriors indeed get easy points from this possession.
Thompson comes up clutch on defense in this next possession. With the Rockets standing around and letting this possession stagnate, Eric Gordon takes it upon himself to go 1-on-1 against Thompson, who stays in front of the driving Gordon, gets his hands on the ball, and ties his man up to force a jump ball.
The Warriors win the jump, with Curry and Green setting up to do another high pick-and-roll. Green slips the screen early, which causes confusion among the two defenders. Curry initiates a give-and-go with Green, which allows him to get a clear look at the rim for a split-second — enough for him bury the clutch 3-point bucket to give the Warriors a 5-point lead.
A Harden 3 cuts the deficit to 2 points, with Curry showing some visible pain on his injured left middle finger. Nevertheless, he takes over once again during this possession, where he simply drives past his defender and goes all the way to the rim for the finish.
Just like in the previous possession, the Warriors go back to running another high pick-and-roll for Curry, with Green setting a screen. This gets P.J. Tucker switched onto Curry, who proceeds to isolate and bury the 3. This shifts the momentum favorably toward the Warriors, and the Rockets are starting to fall apart — Harden’s inbound is lazily thrown and easily intercepted by Thompson, and the Rockets turn over the ball at a crucial point of the game.
After Harden gets a layup to redeem himself, the Warriors run another Curry-Green pick-and-roll. As expected, the Rockets try to trap Curry, who manages to get the ball to Green on the short roll. Again, this creates a numbers advantage for the Warriors — a 4-on-3 situation is created, which stretches the defense thin. Green passes to Iguodala, who immediately whips the ball to Thompson on the wing. He proceeds to essentially bury the dagger 3 into the hearts of the Rockets and their fans.
The Warriors were 7-point underdogs going into Game 6 against the Rockets, with mostly everyone outside of Dub Nation expecting the Rockets to handily win and forcing a do-or-die game at Oracle Arena on Sunday. Logic dictated that without their best player, the Warriors did not have the necessary firepower to defeat the Rockets on their home court.
During the first half, that notion was almost justified, almost proven to be true. Curry failed to score and was showing every indication that he was still in his rut. It took every bit of support from his teammates, especially Thompson, to set up the stage for his coming out party during the second half — all that was left was for him to show up and perform.
“All things considered Klay kept us afloat in the first half,” said Curry after the game. “I was in foul trouble obviously and I couldn’t really get a feel or become assertive. ... Our defense really carried us in the second half to allow that offensive rhythm to start to pick up.”
“I try to stay even keeled. After Game 3, hearing the chatter and how poorly I was playing, this and that, a night like tonight doesn’t happen without belief in myself more and understanding my purpose, being able to play in these type of games, and the people I have around me pouring some positivity and energy into me and keeping my perspective straight on. It’s just basketball, it’s a game I’ve played since I was two years old. Take the good with the bad and just have fun doing what you get to do.”
Despite all of the outside noise, the Splash Brothers believed in themselves like they did all those years ago, when the Warriors became the young upstarts who were ready to ruin the league. Despite all of the slumps, the ruts, and the bad shooting performances, their confidence in themselves and in their teammates never wavered.
While the Rockets themselves are a talented team — having an MVP-caliber offensive gamebreaker, an all time great point guard, and a supporting cast capable of shooting the lights out — they proved to be one level below their biggest Western Conference rivals. They never possessed that championship “eye of the tiger,” the heart and intangibles that these Warriors possess in spades.
Harden and Paul, matched up against Curry and Thompson, can certainly go toe-to-toe with them. But they can never fully understand what it takes to become an NBA champion.
Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson both know what it takes. They have tasted the sweet nectar of championship glory. And they know what they must do to dig deep and deliver during the crucial moments.
In the end, all of these traits proved to be the difference between champions and pretenders.
Eight wins down, 8 more to go.
Stay Golden, Dub Nation.