Warriors vs. Rockets Game 3: Kevin Durant gives Stephen Curry exactly what he needs

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The top story line coming out of the Golden State Warriors' 126-85 annihilation of the Houston Rockets in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals here Sunday was quite obviously Stephen Curry.

Read the final box score and it quickly becomes clear: This was Curry's game. After disappointing performances in the first two games of the series -- 18 points in Game 1, 16 in Game 2, a combined 2-for-13 from 3 -- Curry finally broke out. He scored 35 points in 34 minutes. He added six rebounds. He hit a stepback 3 with James Harden's hand in his face. A 30-footer made the Oracle Arena crowd go absolutely bonkers. He had a typically magnificent Steph Curry third quarter, making all seven of his shots for 18 points. That was part of a span where he made 11 of 12 shots, including four consecutive 3.

A bumbling start to the Western Conference finals made people wonder what was wrong with the two-time MVP. Was his Grade 2 MCL sprain from the end of the regular season lingering well into the playoffs? Was he not in game shape? Was Curry, as one sports pundit asserted, now "the weak link of Golden State's Big 4"?

Ahem: No.

"Sooner or later, he's going to erupt," Rockets head coach Mike D'Antoni said. "You can analyze him all you want, but at the end of the day he's still a pretty good basketball player. I thought we let him get going a couple times. We didn't switch out, didn't get up into him. Then it's a lot easier to shoot when you're up 20 and up 18, which they were most of the game. It's very comfortable, and we didn't make them uncomfortable at all, all night."

Wait one moment. There's a little something in what D'Antoni said right there that slipped past any of the postgame narratives about Curry's reemergence. To wit: "It's a lot easier to shoot when you're up 20." That's what the Warriors were for much of the night: up by a whole bunch. And that's what allowed Curry to get loose.

The Rockets final lead of the game was with four minutes left in the first quarter, 22-20. The Warriors scored the next 13 points. By the end of the first half, the Warriors were up 11: Not yet a blowout, but a sizable halftime lead.

And Curry was not good during that first half. At one point he was 2-for-10 from the field, and 1-for-7 from 3. ("It was frustrating more so because I had the right intentions in the first half," Curry said. "I got five wide-open 3s, and only one of them went in.")

And it was only then, once the third quarter began, when Curry went on an absolutely unholy tear that eventually turned into a 41-point Warriors win, 126-85, the worst playoff loss in Rockets history. The reason Curry was afforded that opportunity -- to keep shooting and shooting and shooting, loose and free and with a sizable lead, until the shots finally began to fall -- was left unspoken after the game.

That reason? Kevin Durant.

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Durant and Curry showed balance in leadership in Game 3. USATSI

In Steve Kerr's postgame press conference, reporters asked 16 questions. Five were about Curry. One question was about Jordan Bell. One was about Shaun Livingston. One was about Kevon Looney.

Not a single one was about Durant.

And yet it was Durant who was the Warriors most dominant player in that first half. He scored 15 points on 12 shots, yet that understates the gravity that flowed around Durant on the offensive end. He was the reason the Warriors had a comfortable lead from the end of the first quarter on, and in turn, that lead was why Curry -- who, remember, Kerr just said was "pressing early" -- was able to light up the Rockets and finally get his game going. Durant gave Curry his opening. He let Curry shoot through his slump.

This is exactly what the Warriors were looking for when they signed Durant two years ago. In 2015-16, the Warriors were one win away from completing the greatest season in NBA history. (The story is well-known: 73 regular-season wins, a 3-1 lead on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals, then Draymond Green's suspension and then Kyrie Irving's Game 7 shot and the greatest comeback -- instead of season -- in NBA history.)

But Durant's signing gave the Warriors the greatest margin for error in NBA history.

Last season, we didn't get to see just how important that margin for error was because, frankly, the Warriors were just too good. Nobody else was close. Nobody else was even within that margin for error. During the playoffs the Warriors won 15 games in a row before the Cavaliers finally won Game 4 -- then were closed out in Game 5 of the Finals. Sure, Kevin Durant won Finals MVP, but there was never a moment where you felt the Warriors were up against the wall, or even moderately challenged.

This season has been different. Curry missed a boatload of games during the regular season, and his injury spilled into the playoffs. The Warriors were not the best team in the NBA in the regular season (or at least they didn't have the best record). That distinction went to the team they were playing on Sunday night, the Rockets. And the Rockets are really, really good, with the most efficient offense ever, a defense that ranked fifth in the NBA, the presumptive league MVP in James Harden, one of the best point guards of all time in Chris Paul, a young big man who fits in perfectly in Clint Capela and a bevy of 3-point shooters to spread the floor.

The Rockets are not better than the Warriors. But the Rockets are firmly within the Warriors' margin for error. If enough things go right for the Rockets, and if enough things go wrong for the Warriors, then this series can absolutely go the way of Houston.

And that's where Durant comes in.

Curry was the story line on Sunday night. Of course he was; the two-time MVP broke out of his shooting slump. At one point he was 3-of-20 for 3 in this series. And then he hit a 30-footer, and suddenly he was on fire.

"I had amnesia, really," Curry said. "In that moment, in my head, am I 0-for-0, or am I 10-for-10 in my head? I'm feeling good in that moment. Just shoot it. You can't second-guess your first instinct."

But it is the way that Durant bailed out Curry's struggles -- both in Game 1 in Houston, and just as importantly in the first half of Game 3 in Oakland -- that opened things up for Curry. He took the pressure off the greatest shooter of all time. And once the pressure was off, once Curry was shooting with a comfortable lead, once he no longer was pressing, the greatest shooter of all time got scorching hot.

"You're always going to face obstacles when it comes to shooting," Green said after the game. "(Curry) is always the next-shot mentality. That was big tonight. I think he started off 1-for-6 or 1-for-7 from 3, and he was able to get it going."

And that? That was all thanks to Durant.

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