On the final day of March in 2015, Golden State guard Stephen Curry dribbled down the baseline at Staples Center, crossing over behind his legs three times, embarrassing the Clippers’ point guard, sending him sprawling helplessly to the floor.
But it turns out revenge, as they say, is a Chris Paul dish best served cold.
In the Rockets’ 127-105 win in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals Wednesday, it was Paul’s turn to get Curry tripping, using a behind-the-back dribble to send Curry to the deck, leading to a crisp pass and an easy dunk.
If it wasn’t premeditated, it became clear early on at Toyota Center: When Curry was in a defensive crouch, Paul, James Harden or whoever was going to attack.
The arena speakers often played the theme from “Jaws.” In Game 2, Curry was the chum.
“Surprise, surprise,” Curry said.
Normally, the Warriors’ team defense is good enough to cover for their star point guard when he’s getting relentlessly attacked, sliding into the paint to help and quickly rotate out to shooters. But with a more active Houston offense, fueled by desperation, any lethargy would be punished.
“We got what we deserved,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “They just played a lot harder than they did in the first game.”
The Rockets were heavily criticized for how they played in Game 1, with the basketball sticking to Harden’s hands for nearly entire possessions. In the aftermath, players and coaches defended the game plan with a shrug.
“We are who we are,” they said for the last two days.
If they were right, the Rockets did a whole bunch of self-improvement between games.
Playing with more urgency, energy and pace, the Rockets, still playing a lot of one-on-one, went faster into the teeth of Golden State’s defense, drawing extra defenders and leaving the Rockets’ role players open, ready to make an impact.
“We just played with a little more thrust,” Paul said.
Eric Gordon, who spoke out about the Rockets’ stagnant offense in Game 1, was maybe the biggest reason Houston evened the series.
Gordon drained six-of-nine from three-point range and scored 27 points off the Houston bench, more than anyone on Golden State not named Kevin Durant.
Durant scored 38, but he finished with five turnovers and no assists. Curry finished with 16 on 19 shot attempts, but no one else on the Warriors scored more than eight points. Klay Thompson made only three of 11 shots.
The Rockets’ starting wings, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker, combined to score just nine points in Game 1, a mark they zoomed past in the first half.
Tucker missed just one of his nine attempts, making five of six from three-point range. He finished with 22 points. Ariza, hampered by foul trouble, had 19 points and six assists.
The changes to the offense — that thrust Paul talked about — weren’t philosophical ones. The Rockets are still a team that wants to attack one-on-one. They just were much better at it Wednesday.
And while the Rockets’ offense was good (51.1% from the field), their defense was almost completely turned around.
Following the opening game of the series, when it seemed likely that the Warriors would be leaving Houston with a 2-0 series lead, the Rockets swore that their defensive mistakes in the opener were correctable.
“We played harder. We got into them. They felt us physically,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “We didn’t quite have the same intensity in the first game. Our guys are great and they learned from it.”
The teams now have three days before the series shifts to Oakland, where the Warriors will host Game 3 on Sunday.
If Houston hadn’t figured things out, if the Rockets kept letting Thompson get wide-open looks, it they kept the ball bouncing off of Harden’s fingertips while seconds ticked off the clock, the series easily could have ended at Oracle Arena.
But the Rockets didn’t panic, didn’t put “must-win” pressure on a game they had to win.
“I don’t think we overreacted,” Paul said.
While the world talked about the flaws in their style, about the ways the defending NBA champs dismantled and defended the Rockets in Game 1, Houston’s players talked and texted with one another, remaining calm, waiting for their chance in Game 2.
“We are who we are, and we had to be who we are,” D’Antoni said. “Guys believe it, and we’re not going to change anything up. That would be silly on my part to panic. You don’t do that.
“We’re very comfortable about who we are, and we can beat anybody anywhere at any time playing the way we play.”
It’ll be tough, maybe improbable, to keep it up on the Warriors’ home court. But, it’s not impossible.