They'd have preferred winning, of course, but after losing the first two games of the Western Conference finals on the road by a combined fivepoints, the Houston Rockets headed back home feeling like they could hang with the big, bad Golden State Warriors.
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"We had plenty of opportunities to win both of the games," said Rockets star James Harden after a brilliant Game 2 — 38 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists, three steals and a block — that ended on a sour note with a final-play turnover that sealed a 99-98 Golden State win. "So we have all the confidence in the world."
It's difficult to imagine that still being the case after Game 3.
The Warriors absolutely decimated Houston on Saturday night, hammering the Rockets 115-80 to take a 3-0 lead in the best-of-seven Western finals. This marks the first three-game losing streak of the Rockets' season ... which makes sense, because this is the first time they've had to play this Warriors team in three straight games.
Despite entering Saturday with a two-game series edge, the Warriors played like a team unwaveringly committed to the task of stepping on its opponent's neck and completely dedicated to eliminating the developing sense that Houston could perhaps play on their level.
The Rockets' last lead was 7-4, after a Jason Terry runner with 9:19 remaining in the first quarter. Golden State never trailed after Dwight Howard goaltended an Andrew Bogut hook shot with 7:44 left in the opening frame. That was it.
The Warriors closed the quarter on a 19-9 run and led 30-18 after the first despite missing seven of their nine 3-point tries and getting only three first-quarter points from superstar Stephen Curry. Houston never got within double figures over the final 2 1/2 quarters, and didn't get within 20 in the final 18 minutes.
"We were as desperate as they are, to increase our lead," Curry told ESPN's Doris Burke after the game. "That's what you saw in the first half, especially, with the energy and effort and focus that we came out with. We were able to sustain it for 48 minutes, so it's a great way to start a road trip."
The Rockets are now the 117th team in NBA history to face an 0-3 deficit in an NBA playoff series. Three have forced a Game 7. None have won.
Stephen Curry reduced the Rockets to rubble on Saturday, punishing Houston defenders every time they lost track of him — which, considering he's the best shooter in the world, was staggeringly often — en route to 40 points (his second 40-point game of this postseason) on 12-for-19 shooting from the field, a scorching 7-for-9 mark from 3-point land and a 9-for-10 night at the foul line.
Curry set a new record for most made 3-pointers in a single postseason in the second quarter, then added five more bombs to go with seven assists, five rebounds, two steals and a block in 35 minutes of work. He snuffed out Houston's hope late in the first half, responding to the Rockets drawing within nine by leading a 24-8 run over the final six minutes — he scored or assisted on 20 of the 24 points — to send Golden State into the locker room with a 25-point lead at intermission.
Then, he effectively ended Game 3 with a third-quarter barrage that saw him score 19 points on 7-for-10 shooting, humbling Houston by knifing through the lane and finishing with lefty scoops high off the glass:
... and with "Iceman"-evoking finger rolls:
... and, of course, by roasting the Rockets from beyond the arc, making all four of his triples in the frame and making sure to let the Houston faithful in the front row know all about it:
ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh highlighted it recently, but boy, Steph sure loves that left corner:
Stephen Curry has made 91% of the 3-pointers he's attempted from the left corner this postseason.
— Synergy Sports Tech (@SynergySST) May 24, 2015
It was the kind of leave-no-doubt performance that the Warriors authored time and again during a 67-15 season that saw them become just the eighth team in NBA history to outscore their opponents by more than 10 points per game over the course of a full campaign. This is part of the reason why Curry only played in the fourth quarter in 60 of his 80 regular-season appearances ... but, because this is the playoffs, Curry came back out for 4 1/2 fourth-quarter minutes, making one last triple to give him an even 40 before calling it a night.
Curry's high-scoring counterpart got off early on Saturday, too, but for precisely the opposite reason.
After averaging 33 points per game on 58.5 percent shooting through the first two games of this series, Harden couldn't get on track on Saturday, missing 13 of his 16 shots in a 17-point performance that came courtesy of a 10-for-11 mark at the line, and that included zero fourth-quarter minutes, with the game already out of reach. The two-time All-NBA First Team shooting guard never seemed to get comfortable against an array of Warriors defenders.
The bigger and stronger Harrison Barnes got the call from the start, in a change from Games 1 and 2, which saw Klay Thompson take the assignment. Later, reserve swingman Andre Iguodala and Thompson picked up Harden for stretches, too, as did power forward Draymond Green on switches.
Plus, Warriors coach Steve Kerr and defensive coordinator Ron Adams — formerly Tom Thibodeau's top lieutenant with the Chicago Bulls — started throwing a Thibs-style strong-side overload zone at Harden when he isolated on the wing, sliding a big man over behind the primary defender to make Harden see multiple bodies whenever he loaded up with intentions to attacking the rim.
With Harden hemmed up and hesitant, the Rockets never got off the launchpad. Howard tried to match the Warriors' energy and effort early, pounding the glass and attacking the rim:
... but he was often fighting alone, as his teammates combined to shoot 7-for-33 in the first half. Kevin McHale's club shot just 33.7 percent from the field for the game, missing 20 of its 25 3-point tries and failing to crack 20 points in three of the four quarters. The Warriors continued to take away on-balance, in-rhythm 3s and dared Harden and company to keep making floaters and midrange jumpers at a high clip. They couldn't, and the rout was on.
But while Howard was one of the few Rockets who seemed locked in and uninterested in falling into an 0-3 hole, he did get caught slipping on one second-quarter possession, allowing the 6-foot-3 Curry to sneak in front of him off the baseline and box him out for an offensive rebound:
As Houston struggled, the Warriors' O seemed remarkably comfortable from the opening tip, with the ball movement that's been Golden State's calling card all year looking crisp. Golden State dished nine assists on 12 field goals without a turnover in the opening quarter, finishing with 26 helpers against 14 cough-ups; nearly as important, those turnovers resulted in just eight Rockets points, thanks to committed and attentive transition defense by Kerr's crew.
Green kept up his tremendous jack-of-all-trades playmaking, scoring 17 points on 8-for-16 shooting with 13 rebounds, five assists, a steal and a block. Largely freed from the Harden assignment, Thompson got himself going a bit, scoring 17 points on 6-for-16 shooting while adding five assists against one turnover in a nice floor game.
Bogut took advantage of Houston's lacking help-the-helper work whenever Howard had to step up to try to contain dribble penetration, scoring 10 points in the first quarter and finishing with 12 points, 12 boards, an assist and a block before fouling out after 20 1/2 minutes. His backup, former starter Festus Ezeli, was strong in his stead, chipping in 10 points and six rebounds in 18 minutes off the Warriors' bench.
Through two games in this series, the Rockets looked like they could run with the Warriors. The thing is, through two games, we hadn't seen these Warriors. This is a deep, talented, athletic, skilled and nasty group that brings napalm to knifefights, and incinerates you with a smile behind bucket after bucket from its baby-faced assassin.
"You know, everybody on that team has confidence to come out here and try to make plays, myself included," Curry told Burke. "If you get stops and get a flow, a rhythm, to the game, things start to happen ... you know, it's fun out there."
No other NBA team has fun quite like these Golden State Warriors. And the way it looks right now, it's awful tough to envision any opponent left stopping them from having it.
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