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Stephen Curry explodes in third quarter, Warriors deal Rockets their worst playoff loss ever, 126-85, to take 2-1 series lead

Zach Pereles
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The most prolific shooter in NBA history made just three of his 20 three-point attempts through two-and-a-half games of the Western Conference Finals.

But great shooters always find a way out of slumps, and great doesn’t even begin to describe Stephen Curry’s third quarter Sunday night. The Warriors’ superstar point guard dazzled Oracle Arena to the tune of 18 points on perfect seven for seven shooting in the third quarter en route to a game-high 35 points, and the Golden State Warriors blew out the Houston Rockets 126-85 to take a 2-1 series lead in the Western Conference Finals.

The first half featured a lot of missed shots…

Houston scored eight of the first 12 points, with four apiece coming from Clint Capela and Trevor Ariza. The Rockets set a variety of perimeter screens trying to get Curry isolated defensively, and it led to multiple high-quality looks around the run. The Warriors came right back with a 9-0 run ignited by a three from Curry. Klay Thompson then finished a layup off the dribble and Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala both scored at the rim off Houston turnovers to go up 13-8.

The two teams remained locked within a couple of possessions before the hosts surged ahead on an 11-0 run to close the quarter. Houston didn’t score for the final 4:04 of the quarter — most of which was played without James Harden — and trailed 31-22 at the end of one period.

The Rockets’ cold shooting carried over to the second quarter. The Rockets missed several good looks at the rim and shot an abysmal six of 20 from the floor, which left them in a world of hurt. While both teams struggled from deep in the first half — the Rockets were four for 15, the Warriors four for 18 — it was the shooting inside the arc that was the difference. The Warriors shot 16 for 29 from two while the Rockets were 11 for 38, with lots of those misses in the paint. The hosts led 54-43 at the break.

The Rockets and the Warriors both struggled from the field in the first half. (via nba.com)
The Rockets and the Warriors both struggled from the field in the first half. (via nba.com)

The Warriors’ incredible third-quarter dominance continues, thanks to Stephen Curry…

The Warriors have been the league’s best third-quarter team for four consecutive years, and they very much looked the part in the opening minutes of Sunday night’s third period. The Warriors went on a 10-0 run to open the second half, and the Rockets countered with a 10-2 run of their own. Golden State finished the period on a 22-14 run behind Curry’s absolutely sterling performance. The shoulder shimmies and the screams to the crowd were reminiscent of the form that made him a back-to-back MVP.

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The Warriors led 88-67 at the end of three and cruised home from there, outscoring the Rockets 38-18 in the final quarter to deal them their worst playoff loss in franchise history. It’s also the largest postseason win in Warriors franchise history.

The Rockets need more out of James Harden and Chris Paul…

Paul and Harden — the backcourt duo that powered the Rockets to the league’s best record behind isolation-heavy offense — combined for just 33 points on 32 shots. That’s simply not good enough to beat or even play with the defending champs. Paul is now five for 20 from deep this series and Harden is 10 for 30. That’s a major issue for a team that runs the most isolation-heavy offense in NBA history. On the other end, there were multiple lapses during the game’s decisive third quarter. Shaun Livingston blowing by Harden for an emphatic dunk early in the fourth was emblematic of the game as a whole.

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Houston head coach Mike D’Antoni admitted his team was “soft,” and against the Warriors, soft is not an option.

The Houston bench needs to be more consistent…

The Rockets count on their guards heavily to be able to beat their man and score or distribute in a variety of ways. Harden and Paul were terrific at that all year, and role players such as defensive standouts Trevor Ariza and PJ Tucker, terrific scorer Eric Gordon and incredible athlete Gerald Green have fit their exact roles well alongside the All-Star guards. But those four combined to shoot just 11 for 34. Gordon, who was outstanding in the Game 2 victory, shot three for 14 and was a game-worst minus-33. Green was just three for 10. Luc Mbah a Moute was minus-28 in just 15 minutes of game action. The Rockets need better contributions from everyone. It starts with Harden and Paul, but it finishes with the role players being better, too.

D’Antoni could have some interesting decisions ahead of himself as well. He has plenty of intriguing options off his bench. Joe Johnson’s been an elite one-on-one scorer his entire career, and even at an advanced age, he proved he can swing games as recently as last year’s playoffs. Ryan Anderson, who was part of the rotation for almost the entire season before an ankle injury, could also provide some value as a pick-and-pop guy. Where Johnson and Anderson would fit defensively, though, remains a tough question to answer, especially against a team as versatile as the Warriors.

When the Warriors play like this, they’re near impossible to beat…

The Rockets certainly did not play well in this game. They missed open shots, were lackadaisical with the ball and struggled defensively. But that’s not to take anything away from Golden State, which was (and for the past three years now, has been) terrific.

While the Rockets dribble a lot trying because of the individual talent they have, the Warriors whiz the ball around despite the individual talent they have. All five starters scored in double figures, and Livingston had 11 off the bench. Only two players — Draymond Green and Nick Young — shot worse than 40 percent from the field, and yet both players had important impacts on the game: Green recorded a double-double (10 points and 17 assists) while also dishing out six assists and providing his always-terrific defense. Young hit a big three — his only field goal of the night — shortly before the first-quarter buzzer.

But more than that, the Warriors move the ball smartly, and their off-ball movement is ingenious. Curry, whose three-point totals either already have or soon will shatter league records, had struggled mightily up until the third quarter. But instead of hoping to get his rhythm back by chucking up long shots off the dribble, he used screens and backdoor cuts to free himself and got to the basket off the dribble. When he began to get his flow back, that’s when the threes started falling. And that’s when this game was, for all competitive purposes, over. The Warriors are incredibly talented, and when that talent is struggling, they’re smart enough to know how to fix what’s not working. Credit Steve Kerr, his staff and his high basketball IQ players for that.

Turnovers have told the story so far this series…

The Rockets turned the ball over 20 times, which led to 28 Warriors points Sunday night. The Warriors, meanwhile, had just eight turnovers resulting in eight points for the Rockets.

The issue of turnovers has been a major deciding factor during this series. In Game 1, the Warriors won the turnover battle 16-9 and the points off turnovers battle 17-9. In Game 2, the Rockets flipped the script, winning the turnover battle 15-14 and the points off turnovers battle 15-12.

Game 4 is Tuesday night at 10 p.m. ET…

The Rockets will need their stars to step up in Game 4 if they want to even up the series. The Warriors, meanwhile, are going to be near impossible to beat if Curry’s second half is a sign of things to come. The win Sunday night also makes it 16 playoff home wins in a row for the Warriors, the longest in NBA history, so a Houston win will not come easily in any way.

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