The Golden State Warriors had an excuse.
They had just watched their superstar, the league's reigning and presumptive back-to-back Most Valuable Player, hit the deck in a heap and head back into the locker room, raising a slew of scary questions that could strike at the heart of their attempt to defend their NBA title.
They were starting the second half tied with a Houston Rockets team that had scratched out a Game 3 win and that now had a golden opportunity to even their best-of-seven opening-round series at two games apiece. Hours earlier, the Warriors were celebrating the return of Stephen Curry; now, they had to wonder once again how badly he was hurt, and how long he'd be out.
In a similar position, lots of teams would have blinked. Instead, the Warriors broke the Rockets' back.
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
Golden State dominated the second half and set a new NBA record for made 3-pointers in a single playoff game en route to a 121-94 road win that gives Golden State a 3-1 lead and a chance to close the Rockets out — with or without Curry — back at Oracle Arena in Game 5 on Wednesday night.
With Curry shelved, the Warriors' other two All-Stars — shooting guard Klay Thompson and power forward Draymond Green — completely took over the game, incinerating the Rockets' lackluster defense to the tune of 25 third-quarter points on 9-for-14 shooting, including a scintillating 7-for-10 mark from 3-point land. Harrison Barnes hit one, too; those eight 3-pointers represent a new NBA record for most 3-pointers in a playoff quarter.
Stunned by the Steph-less Warriors' long-distance haymaker, a Rockets team that had worked hard in the first half — with James Harden and Dwight Howard breaking down the defense in the pick-and-roll, Dwight posting a first-half double-double, and reserve Michael Beasley torching the Dubs for 13 points in 12 minutes — reverted to the bad behaviors that made them one of the season's most disappointing teams.
They failed to get back in transition, allowing the Warriors to score nine fast-break points in the third quarter alone. They committed live-ball turnovers, coughing it up four times leading to eight Warriors points. They scarcely offered any defensive resistance, allowing Golden State to completely change the complexion of a game that had been tied at 29 after one quarter and 56 after two with a 41-20 third stanza that turned the entire fourth into garbage time. That left Harden — who had played every second of the first three quarters, and who finished with 18 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and seven steals — a passive observer by the closing minutes:
Despite Curry being limited to just six points on 2-for-9 shooting (1-for-7 from 3-point range) in 19 minutes before leaving the game with a sprained right knee suffered on the final play of the first half, the Warriors still rolled up 121 points on 51.7 percent shooting and a whopping 21 3-pointers in 40 attempts. That breaks an NBA postseason record previously shared by four teams, including the 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers, who tied the mark just last week in winning Game 2 of their first-round series against the Detroit Pistons. The Warriors' barrage fell two triples short of the all-time record for most 3s in any single game, which the Rockets tied against the Warriors just two years ago. Funny how these things work out.
Without their top gun, the Warriors doubled down on their ball- and player-movement ethos, sharing the ball to the tune of 38 assists (the most by any Golden State playoff team in 22 years) on 46 made baskets. As he did in Curry's absence in Game 2, Thompson stepped into the primary scoring role with aplomb, finishing with a team-high 23 points on 7-for-11 shooting from deep to go with five assists, two rebounds and two steals. Emotional leader Green added 18 points, eight rebounds, six assists and a steal.
Veteran swingman Andre Iguodala did his part to help ice Houston, too. The top reserve chipped in 22 points on scorching 9-for-11 shooting, five rebounds, four assists and one steal in just 24 minutes off the bench, helping the Warriors not only survive Curry's loss, but briefly reach new heights in his absence.
"It's a tough loss for us, and we're praying for my brother," Iguodala told ABC's Lisa Salters after the game. "[...] We always say 'strength in numbers' for a reason. When one guy goes down, we've got to have the rest of the guys fill in collectively. One guy just can't do what he does for us."
But for right now, at least, one guy doesn't have to — not when Thompson's aim is true, and Green's breaking down the defense, and Iguodala's making the right pass, and Shaun Livingston (nine points, nine assists, five rebounds and just one turnover in Curry's place on the ball) has his steady hand on the rudder. Not when the best 3-point shooter the world's ever seen goes out and you've got enough firepower to set a new long-range record anyway.
"Well, we have a lot of confidence, and there are things that we can do that we hold back with, because our team doesn't need it," Iguodala said. "And then there's nights like tonight, and it's like, 'Oh, OK, the guys need us to do this tonight,' so we bring it to the table, and we're ready to go."
The other Warriors were definitely ready to go to battle. The Rockets, however, looked ready to go home, completely short-circuiting on the defensive end.
Bickerstaff: "For us, our defense let us down, our willingness to scrap let us down."
— Jonathan Feigen (@Jonathan_Feigen) April 24, 2016
The result was a performance that will go down as the second-biggest home playoff loss in franchise history ... trailing only Game 3 of last year's Western Conference Finals, to these same Warriors. Well, not the same Warriors — that team had Curry popping for 40 points and carrying the load himself. This time, it was Golden State's stellar supporting cast that put the Rockets on the brink of elimination, even as the Warriors' thoughts remained with their fallen star.
"He really wants to be out there fighting with us," Iguodala told Salters. "But he's strong, and we're going to carry him."
More NBA coverage:
- - - - - - -