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The Rockets Finally Took Advantage Of Steph Curry’s Struggles In Game 3

Get into a close game with the Golden State Warriors, and more often than not, they are going to beat you. Since Steve Kerr was hired prior to the 2014-15 campaign, the Warriors have amassed a record of 108-46 in games that entered clutch time1 during the regular season; heading into Game 3 against the Rockets, they had a 24-11 record in such games during the playoffs — a record that included wins over Houston in Games 1 and 2 of the teams’ ongoing second-round series.

In Game 3, though, the Warriors ultimately came up short — much like Stephen Curry’s late-game dunk attempt. They fell to the Rockets by a final score of 126-121 and saw their series lead cut in half. Of course, the Warriors may not have lost had they not wound up in clutch time in the first place. A key reason they did: The Rockets won the 3-point battle against the Warriors for the third consecutive game, nailing 18 triples to the Warriors’ 14. This is — to put it plainly — not a common occurrence.

Golden State has now played 92 playoff games during the Kerr era, and this is the first time that a single playoff opponent has made more 3-point shots than the Warriors in three consecutive games.2 But the Warriors are as subject to the same vagaries of 3-point shooting as any other team. Their winning percentage has fallen off sharply in both the regular season and postseason based on which team made more 3-point shots during the game. They’re now just 12-12 in playoff games under Kerr when their opponent made more 3-point shots.

The Warriors didn’t even shoot all that badly from the 3-point line on Saturday night. Their 14-of-33 clip would yield a good enough conversion rate (.424) to be the best in the league nearly every year. You know who did shoot really badly from three, though? Curry. And not for the first time in this series.

Curry is widely (and rightly) considered the best shooter in the history of the game, but he is ice cold right now. After shooting a combined 6 of 23 from 3-point range during the first two games of this battle, he clanged his way to a 2 of 9 deep shooting night in Game 3, making him 8 of 32 on triples during the second round. That .250 conversion rate on threes is wildly out of character for Curry. Among all nonoverlapping three-game stretches of Curry’s entire playoff career, his 3-point percentage in Games 1-3 against Houston is the third-lowest.3

Curry has gone ice cold

The worst non-overlapping three-game stretches of three-point shooting for Steph Curry in the playoffs

Year 3P 3PA 3P %
2015 Conf. finals Game 5, NBA Finals Games 1-2 7 32 .219
2013 Conf. semifinals Games 6-7, Round 1 Game 1 (2014) 5 21 .238
2019 Conf. semifinals Games 1-3 8 32 .250
2018 Conf. semifinals Game 4, conf. finals Games 1-2 5 19 .263
2015 Conf. semifinals Games 2-4 8 30 .267
2016 Conf. finals Games 3-5 8 29 .276

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

And as cold as Curry was from the outside, he was not much better inside in Game 3. After blowing two late-game finishes inside the paint — including the aforementioned embarrassing missed dunk attempt with 20 seconds left in overtime — Steph finished the game having made just five of his 14 2-point attempts, a .357 rate. He had shot worse than that on 2-pointers in just eight of the 47 previous postseason contests in which he attempted 10 shots or more from inside the arc.

Making matters worse is the ruthlessness with which the Rockets are targeting him on the opposite end of the floor. During the regular season, opponents used the man Curry was guarding as the screener in a pick and roll 202 times in 69 games, according to Second Spectrum tracking data. That’s an average of about 2.9 per game. Borrowing a strategy the Cleveland Cavaliers used to perfection during their 2016 NBA Finals upset of the Warriors, the Rockets have used Curry’s man as the screener for James Harden an incredible 58 times through the first three games of this series, or 19.3 per game.

The Warriors have studiously avoided switching those pick and rolls in order to prevent Curry from having to defend Harden in isolation. They have often contorted themselves to avoid such a situation, having Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala completely abandon other Rockets on the floor in order to ensure that they, and not Curry, pick up Harden for the ensuing isolation play. Despite not often generating the preferred matchup out of a switch, those plays have still worked out extremely well for the Rockets, who have scored 1.14 points per play when they’ve had Curry’s man set the screen for Harden.

In Games 1 and 2, Green, Iguodala and Kevin Durant did just enough heavy lifting to push the Warriors over the top despite Curry’s muted performances, leading Golden State to two wins by a total of 10 points. Green recorded a triple-double and Durant poured in 46 points in Game 3, but it wasn’t enough. Given how well the Rockets are playing right now, it might not be enough in future games, either. The Warriors need their other MVP back in peak form.

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Footnotes

  1. Defined by NBA.com as a game where the score was within 5 points at any time during the last five minutes.

  2. The only time Golden State had been out-shot from the 3-point line in three consecutive games against any playoff opponent prior to this was in Game 6 against the Clippers and the first two games of this series. In other words, they have now made fewer 3-point shots than their opponent in four consecutive playoff games.

  3. Determined using a three-game rolling average. Curry has now played in 99 playoff games, so there are 97 potential three-game samples here. And this is the third-worst of those 97.

Jared Dubin is a New York writer and lawyer. He covers the NFL for CBS and the NBA elsewhere.

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