His forehead wrinkled by concentration, the trainer removed athletic tape binding three digits on Curry’s left hand, including a middle finger dislocated nine days before. Curry dipped the naked fingers in a cup of ice water as another staffer, kneeling, affixed bags of ice to the guard’s knees with clear plastic wrap.
The Warriors did everything possible to ensure Curry was ready for the Houston Rockets in Game 6 of this second-round playoff series. Already missing Kevin Durant, whose right calf strain has indefinitely knocked out the forward averaging 34 points during this postseason, Golden State’s lineup needed its other stars to be at their best.
For two quarters, Curry wasn’t even close. It continued a postseason in which his play — too many fouls, blown layups and errant passes — has invited criticism instead of generating the usual awe.
“I was pretty terrible,” Curry said.
Then came a fourth quarter for the ages.
Curry exploded for 23 points in the quarter to close out a 118-113 victory, and Houston, with a statement performance. He finished with 33 points after being held scoreless in the first half for the first time in 102 career postseason games
“Steph down the stretch,” Draymond Green said, “was incredible.”
During this postseason the defending champions, like Curry himself, have appeared more vulnerable than ever amid their dynastic run. Their bench has been called thin. Their stars, such as Klay Thompson, have acknowledged being unfocused at times. But there is a reason why this franchise has won three of the last four titles.
“We’ve been in situations like this before,” Curry said. “We’ve dug deep to keep our composure, stay solid and close out a series. I’m damn proud.”
Twelve of the 35 points scored by Houston’s James Harden came in the fourth quarter, but afterward he lamented missed opportunities. Trailing by two with 2:24 remaining, Harden was called for a push-off. After Curry sank a three-pointer while falling into Houston’s bench with 1:45 remaining for a 107-102 Warriors lead, Harden threw a pass that was intercepted by Thompson. Those empty possessions added up.
“Very, very frustrating,” Harden said, and though he was referencing the lost opportunities from this particular series, he also could have described what it has been like to have Houston’s season ended by Golden State four times in the last five seasons.
Since acquiring guard Chris Paul two years ago, Houston had tailored its roster and style expressly to take down the Warriors, only to fall flat. The Rockets lost in Game 7 of last season’s conference finals as a hurt Paul watched from the sideline. This time, however, Houston was healthy while Golden State was missing Durant, a scorer Thompson called “the ultimate luxury.”
“This one hurts,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr, conversely, called it one of the most satisfying wins of his five seasons.
Unable to lean on his stars in the first half because of Durant’s absence, and two first-quarter fouls apiece by Curry and Green, Kerr leaned on unusual lineups, role players and Thompson, who had 21 of his 27 points in the half, to enter halftime tied. Eleven Warriors played at least six minutes. Andre Iguodala finished with 17 points. Kevon Looney came off the bench for 14 points.
“We always say to make the other guys beat you,” said Paul, who scored 27 points. “They damn sure did that.”
But if the unheralded Warriors kept the game close, Curry took control late. He yelled as he walked off the court, toward his locker room.
A few minutes later, a stone-faced Daryl Morey, Houston’s general manager, walked past Golden State’s locker room. He continued down the same hallway where hours earlier a Rockets player had sung a Notorious B.I.G. lyric in anticipation of a Game 7 in Oakland: “We going, going, back, back to Cali, Cali.”
Three hours later, Houston’s tune had changed.