Playoffs 2019 West Semifinals: Warriors (1) vs. Rockets (4)

Curry's struggles becoming a thing, opening door for Rockets

Houston avoids 3-0 hole behind 41 from Harden; Curry deflects question about dislocated finger

HOUSTON — Long after the game ended in overtime, a solitary player in the visiting locker room was still wearing his full uniform and working overtime. While his teammates dressed quickly and left both the room and a bitter memory behind them, he stayed on a stationary bike and pedaled in silence, knees pumping, sweat pouring, eyes unblinking.

If looks and posture could kill, then Stephen Curry would have slayed the Houston Rockets on Saturday night instead of that wide-open layup he murdered. And that clear path dunk he butchered. Nothing he could do about it now, so he attacked the bike instead, pedaling fast and going nowhere.

And that is the point of contention now in this suddenly suspenseful second-round series: Where does Curry go from here, with a shot that seems shockingly ordinary for him, and how much is his dislocated finger to blame?

Maybe the Golden State Warriors, up 2-1 on Houston, get by the Rockets anyway because Kevin Durant remains in another galaxy. Yet in the long run, a dislocated finger, even if it’s on his non-shooting hand, is nothing to play with. Literally and figuratively.

Curry has yet to put his stamp on this series and his fingerprints were suspiciously missing again when the Warriors could not put away the hungrier and more desperate Rockets, losing 126-121. Sure, James Harden’s bloodshot eyes turned rose colored and he dropped 41 points, including the closeout buckets (but you knew that was coming). And Eric Gordon supplied 30 points, and perhaps you saw that as possible. And P.J. Tucker chopped wood in the paint and led an offensive rebound onslaught. OK, fine.

But Steph needing 23 shots to score 17 points?

Oh, and there was this: Curry in overtime took only two shots and not only did he miss them, those misses were greeted by snickers at Toyota Center. The first was a blown layup that wasn’t challenged at the rim. It was taken with his left and of course prompted the obvious question.

“I just got to make those,” he said, deflecting any lingering finger issues but not dismissing it. “If I’m out there playing, I gotta produce.”

The other was an uncontested dunk that went doink. That layup was crucial because the Warriors were down only three with 1:49 left. The dunk was rather meaningless at that point, with 19 seconds left and the crowd still buzzing after Harden’s game-clinching, stepback 3-pointer. It basically served as a snapshot of Curry’s night.

“I was feeling good, had a nice head of steam and probably a little frustration, too,” said Curry about the missed dunk. “It was not my finest moment.”

You can brush this all aside as the Rockets were fighting for their playoff lives, and still needed overtime on their home court to grab a win despite a sub-par Warriors performance, and that would be well and reasonable.

Still, it doesn’t mask the greater issue here with regard to the Warriors. Curry hasn’t looked Curry-level sharp all postseason and his left fingers are taped. When does this all become a “thing”, and will Curry’s woes — again, this is all relative, because he hasn’t exactly cratered — become costly?

At some point, the Warriors might go a game or two with Durant cooling off and managing “only” 25 or so points and will need some assistance from the game’s greatest shooter — assuming Durant hasn’t wrestled that distinction from Curry. For now anyway, and at least publicly, they don’t appear particularly worried about that.

It was just a tough night for him. It didn’t happen.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr, on Stephen Curry

“He just had a tough night,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr. “Everybody, no matter how good you are, you’re going to have some bad games. It was just a tough night for him. It didn’t happen.”

Yet this was the same coach who insisted last week, after the last mild effort from Curry, that “Steph will come back strong and have a big game” and that didn’t happen, and still hasn’t happened. The Warriors are waiting, the Rockets are bracing, and certainly the basketball world is expecting something splashy … soon.

And it’s coming, perhaps by Monday’s Game 4. Isn’t it?

“I know I’ll be ready,” said Curry.

In this postseason Curry is below average in scoring and 3-point shooting. The last three games he’s shooting 36 percent. Curry has reached 30 or more points just once in nine playoff games. And in seven of those nine he failed to get 25 points.

Again, much of this is being masked by Durant taking the load, although there will be a shift in concern if Curry misfires again Monday and the Rockets tie the series.

As much as his teammates and coaches downplay it, Curry cannot and does not ignore the elephant in the room. He admitted as much when he said, regretfully: “A couple more shots go my way tonight and this game would be different.”

That sounds like a star who knows he isn’t on the high level he created for himself.

Curry rode the exercise bike to burn off frustration, and the mental demons will likely live in his head at least overnight.

“Obviously thinking about what I can do better to elevate my game, and I”m looking forward to Monday,” he said.

The opportunity to go up 3-0 was wasted along with 46 points from Durant and a triple-double from Draymond Green and timely baskets by Andre Iguodala, whose 3-pointer gave Golden State its final lead before Big Game James took over and Curry crashed.

Evidently Harden’s eye is no longer a problem, at least not functionally. Cosmetically is a different issue.

“He look crazy,” cracked Chris Paul.

It just wasn’t Curry gone cold; his backcourt partner Klay Thompson had empty stretches. It’s not a good sign for the Warriors when Iman Shumpert hits more 3-pointers than Thompson or Curry.

And so there is one win separating the Rockets and Warriors and the next game is at Toyota Center. Stranger things have happened in basketball, even in these playoffs, where the Warriors blew a 31-point lead and also dropped a pair of games to the eight-seeded Clippers.

Perhaps weirdest of all is the sight and sound of Curry clanking. If this was a two- or three-game fling, then fine, it happens to the best. But for a player who has a pair of regular-season MVP awards but no Finals MVP, Curry is still looking for his Kevin Durant playoff run, the one where he leaves no doubt, only bodies in his wake.

You can argue if this has yet to happen in his career. There is no arguing whether this has happened this spring. It hasn’t.

Curry has both a dislocated left middle finger and a hairline fracture of the jumper. Again, for anyone else, what Curry has done in nine playoff games is fine, even solid. For Curry, this is alarming.

The only mark that he has put on this series is on the rim, where a bit of orange paint is missing, no thanks to a dunk that captured the plight of a player in search of a magical shot.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

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