NBA playoffs: How Steph Curry's Game 3 explosion was fueled by Kerr's rotational adjustments
Curry will get the headlines for his 18-point third quarter, but Kerr's early decisions helped lead to the madness
OAKLAND, Calif. -- If you watched, or even heard about, the Golden State Warriors' 126-85 pummeling of the Houston Rockets in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals on Sunday, you know one thing: Steph Curry broke out of his slump in the way only Steph Curry can -- dropping 35 points, busting out his shoulder shimmy and screaming benevolent profanity at his home crowd, reminding all of us that Oracle Arena is, indeed, his effing house.
What you may not remember is that in the first half, just as was the case in the previous two games, Curry couldn't hit a shot -- and it was a subtle rotation tweak from Warriors coach Steve Kerr that may have helped get his superstar back on a roll.
After going 2-for-13 from 3-point range in the first two games of the Western Conference finals, there Curry was again, staring another horrific shooting game in the face. He was 1-for-7 on 3-pointers in the first half, a handful of which were absolutely wide open -- more wide open than Curry should ever be on a basketball court. Even the ever-faithful crowd was tangibly nervous, groaning in disappointment after Curry missed a forced, contested fadeaway late in the second quarter.
With Curry struggling yet again, Kerr maintained resolve that his star would eventually break free, and in the meantime Kerr pushed all the right coaching buttons to keep Golden State in control.
Most glaring was Kerr's decision to stagger Curry and Kevin Durant, something that he hadn't done much since the pair came together before last season. Curry usually plays the entirety of the first quarter, as he did in the first two games of this series. But in Game 3 Kerr took out Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson with 2:46 left in the first quarter, leaving Durant in with the bench unit, and the result was a 9-0 run that Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni highlighted as a turning point in the game.
Curry then started the second quarter, but came out with 8:20 to play as Durant came back in. Not only did Kerr's decision allow one of his two offensive superstars to be on the court at all times, but it also earned Curry valuable second-quarter rest with James Harden on the court for the Rockets.
As they did in the previous two games, Houston relentlessly hunted Curry on offense, repeatedly forcing him to defend Harden isolations after switches. Overall Curry and the Warriors played better defense in those situations, but keeping Curry out of the Harden gauntlet for a few minutes in the second quarter may have given him the rest -- mental and physical -- that he needed for his 18-point, 7-for-7 third-quarter explosion.
Then again, sometimes a player just needs a different look, something to break up the routine and change your mental approach just enough to get yourself out of your own head.
"We switched it up a little bit for sure," Curry said of the rotations after the game. "The biggest thing is just staying locked in when you're on the bench. For however long it is, just stay aware of what's going on, keep your mind right so when you get back in there you can get back to doing what you're doing."
It all came together in the third quarter, with Curry leading the charge as the Warriors built an insurmountable lead. Even with Curry pleading to stay in during his rampage, Kerr stuck with the plan and took his scorching hot point guard out with 2:20 left in the third. Staggering Curry and Durant clearly paid off, but it wasn't the only rotation tweak Kerr made.
He also leaned on Kevon Looney early and often. Looney only played six minutes in the first half of the Warriors' Game 2 loss, with David West picking up six minutes as well. In Game 3, Looney was Kerr's first sub off the bench, checking in for Andre Iguodala less than six minutes into the game. He made his presence felt immediately, coming up with a huge block on Luc Mbah a Moute's dunk attempt, and several strong defensive stands in isolations against Harden, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon -- players who normally feast on bigs after switches.
"Looney's a good matchup in this series because of all the isos, because of the 1-on-1 play," Kerr said after the game. "You need bigs who can switch out and cover Chris and James. They're so tough to handle, and Loon's really good at that. He's gotten better and better all season, and we're thrilled with how he's played."
When Looney picked up his third foul of the first half on a Harden drive, the obvious move would have been to go to West, a veteran and an essential cog in the Warriors' bench over the past two seasons. Instead Kerr elected to go with little-used rookie Jordan Bell, who had gotten almost all of his playoff minutes thus far in garbage time. The best part of the decision to play Bell was that it was totally improvised.
"Honestly I wasn't exactly sure how I was gonna play in the backup five role," Kerr said. "We went into the game thinking we're going to see how the game goes and adapt from there. When Looney got in foul trouble, I just wanted to stay with our more mobile defenders on the perimeter, and so I went to Jordan instead of David."
The Rockets went after Bell immediately -- the familiar dance of screening with Bell's man to get him switched onto Harden. He was burned a couple of times, but overall Bell was a plus-13 in his 10 minutes, a far cry from West's minus-6 in the Game 2 loss. Kerr was clear that Bell has not replaced West in the rotation, but the rookie probably earned himself some more minutes with his solid performance.
So, while everyone will point to this as "The Curry Game," and talk about how you just can't stop Steph when he gets into one of his zones, it's important to note the minor rotational adjustments that Kerr and the Warriors' coaching staff employed in Game 3. They clearly played a part in Steph getting back to being Steph.
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