A brutal cluster of injuries to key players have left many fans with a sour taste for these playoffs. A bright spot amid the fallen stars has been the Golden State Warriors, as the favorites have managed to remain unscathed on their march to the Finals. Until tonight.
The Rockets, attempting to keep their season alive, couldn’t have played a better first quarter. Holding leads of 12-0 and 19-3 before ending the quarter up 45-22, Houston hit just about everything. Led by Josh Smith‘s stunning 5-5 start, including a trio of threes for 13 points, they shot 8-9 from beyond the arc and 17-22 overall:
— NBA.com/Stats (@nbastats) May 26, 2015
In scoring the first points of the second quarter, Houston held its largest lead at 47-22. After the Warriors had gotten the deficit under 20, the ominous play that changed the game, and potentially the season, happened. On a fast break, Stephen Curry tried to defend Trevor Ariza at the rim, but Ariza faked, resulting in Curry flipping over Ariza and landing extremely hard on his neck and shoulder area. A stretcher was brought out, but Curry eventually left under his own power.
All the energy in the building instantly dissipated, and Warriors coach Steve Kerr discussed the situation frankly with his players, saying that everyone knows it’s strange, but that that void of momentum represented an opportunity to get back in the game. Powered by Klay Thompson finally coming alive and hitting four triples, get back in the game they did, shaving the lead to single digits and trailing by just 10 at halftime. (Side note: James Harden released a shot that went in from nearly full court just after time expired.)
Curry remained out to begin the second half, with the general expectation that he would remain out, especially with a commanding 3-0 series lead and that he had appeared rather woozy while walking in the arena hallways. A crowd of reporters mobilized as the actual gameplay ceased to be the top story:
Curry is in the Warriors' locker room now, with father Dell, Bob Myers, Kirk Lacob and medical staff. He walked on his own from X-ray room.
— Ken Berger (@KBergCBS) May 26, 2015
The Warriors, now the underdog, had firmly entrenched themselves after the rough start, with the gap holding on the edges of single digits. The TV coverage then cut to Curry jogging in the hallway and he subsequently, and unfathomably, returned to the game. It felt like watching the NFL, which is to say that it felt wrong. His mom, known for celebrating with style, was relegated to this:
Sonya Curry is not taking Steph's return well pic.twitter.com/bW2unVkkVc
— The Cauldron (@TheCauldron) May 26, 2015
He clearly didn’t look comfortable shooting at first, throwing up an air ball. It didn’t work at all from a tactical standpoint either, as the Rockets quickly resurrected their 20-point advantage. Houston had regained its focus after a period of understandably drifting in the wake of the injury, and their crowd recovered from their state of semi-shock.
Curry eventually starting contributing, particularly via passing, and Golden State made yet another run. They got hot from three and resorted to hacking Smith and Dwight Howard to extend the game, though they ultimately couldn’t climb all the way out of the hole, with their last, best chance coming up short when Leandro Barbosa missed a three down 104-98 with under eight minutes remaining.
Parts of this game, which ended up 128-115 after all the intentional fouling, were thrilling. Harden was fantastic in scoring 45 points (13-22 FG, 7-11 from three, 12-13 from the stripe) and adding nine boards and five assists. The Rockets improved to 4-0 when facing elimination and handled the strange environment of this game in a suitable fashion. It wasn’t easy, but they made the necessary plays to hang on to the lead each time the Warriors threatened.
They deserve more praise than they’ll receive in the aftermath of Game 4, as the talk will be dominated by Curry and the debate over whether he should have been allowed to play. Head injuries are obviously a focal point in sports now, and that Curry returned so soon after lying on the floor, face down, hardly moving, deserves every bit of attention that it’s going to get.
On a personal note, I’ve had plenty of negative basketball experiences. As a Bulls fan, I’ve watched twice as Derrick Rose tore a knee ligament, not to mention the plenty of other times since where I feared that he did. I watched as Howard Schultz handed the future of NBA basketball in Seattle over to Clay Bennett while David Stern allowed it. I’ve been sad and I’ve been mad, and far be it for me to judge whether Curry was fit to return when his own dad was there with him, but never until tonight have I been uncomfortable during an NBA game.