LOS ANGELES — As Kevin Durant rose to drive a stake into the plucky Los Angeles Clippers, Stephen Curry clutched his head with both hands as if bracing for impact. The resulting slam dunk, two-handed and forceful, marked the end of the “hope springs eternal” phase that greets the start of the NBA playoffs each year, and it brought the Golden State Warriors one step closer to a long-anticipated rematch with the Houston Rockets.
Curry’s afternoon might have ended in celebration, but it was mostly cause for heartburn. The two-time MVP missed his first seven three-pointers Sunday and dealt with early foul trouble for the second straight game, yet the Warriors cruised to a 113-105 win and took a 3-1 series lead over the Clippers. The day before, James Harden missed his first 15 shot attempts, but the Rockets still took a 3-0 series lead over the Utah Jazz.
This weekend’s harsh lesson: If the favorites can survive such poor shooting nights from their stars to win on the road, the underdogs better start planning their summer vacations.
The Warriors and Rockets are the league’s most proven teams, and their resilience in the face of aberrant performances was hardly surprising. Durant paced Golden State with a steady 33 points in Game 4, while Klay Thompson broke through with 32 points and six three-pointers. The Warriors also turned in another strong team defensive performance, smothering Danilo Gallinari and Lou Williams.
“They’re long, athletic and smart,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said. “They’ve been together forever. There’s nothing you’re going to run that they can’t read. [Their defense] is the most undervalued thing about their team.”
If Golden State showed that its winning formula isn’t solely tied to Curry’s offensive effectiveness, the point guard also made it clear he is far more than just a scorer. Despite scoring just 12 points on 3-for-14 shooting — one of the five lowest-scoring playoff games of his career — Curry grabbed 10 rebounds and had seven assists. Down the stretch, he set up a Durant three and drove to the hoop to key Durant’s closing hammer.
“He still stuffs the stat sheet,” Thompson said of Curry. “He made some great passes and had timely steals. We’re lucky that we have a lot of experience and we know to play with poise, patience and to play together. If we do those three things, we’re almost unstoppable.”
A similar script played out for the Rockets, whose defense rose to the challenge in a Game 3 slugfest with the Jazz on Saturday night. Harden compensated for an unsightly 3-for-20 shooting night by getting to the free throw line 17 times and handing out 10 assists, including a number on lobs to Clint Capela. He had plenty of help, too: All five Rockets starters finished in double figures, Chris Paul asserted himself in key moments, and P.J. Tucker pulled down a pair of clutch rebounds to seal the win.
“It doesn’t matter what you shoot,” Rockets Coach Mike D’Antoni said. “There’s so many ways to win a game, you don’t have to be great at shooting or scoring. You can win in all kinds of different ways.”
In playoffs past, though, Harden’s rough stretches often have had dire consequences. In some cases, he is detached from the action. In others, his teammates have turned to him for answers and crumbled if he fell short. Harden didn’t relent Saturday, repeatedly bulldozing through the paint and absorbing contact from Jazz center Rudy Gobert to bring home the win.
“Just keep shooting,” Harden said of his Game 3 mind-set. “[Whether I’m shooting] 0 for 15, 14 for 15, 15 for 15, my job is to go out there and produce. Be aggressive and in attack mode. Nothing changes.”
The Warriors and Rockets are each one win away from a rematch of last year’s classic seven-game Western Conference finals. That series ended with a torrent of bricks from Houston, which set an NBA record by missing 27 consecutive three-pointers as Golden State came back to win Game 7. It was a heartbreaking loss but also the kind that inspires a deep desire for revenge.
For the defending champs, the prospect of facing Harden in the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons is nothing new. The Warriors did battle with LeBron James in four straight Finals, and Houston’s MVP candidate is the next best thing. With four less-established teams still fighting on the other side of the West’s bracket, many will view Warriors/Rockets, should it come to pass, as the de facto conference finals.
Warriors Coach Steve Kerr did his best to dispute his team’s inevitability this week, telling reporters that he grew up as a UCLA basketball fan expecting the Bruins to continue winning title after title. Soon after legendary coach John Wooden retired, he noted, the dynasty ended, and it hasn’t returned.
“The reason that people are so attracted to sports is that none of [them] know what’s going to happen,” said Kerr, who has guided Golden State to three titles in the past four seasons. “You do your best to have a good team, and you hope to get some luck. We’re just trying to keep this going.”
Point taken. But with Curry and Harden, Durant and Paul, Thompson and Capela, it’s hard to see how these playoffs could have broken any other way.