The Warriors found themselves in a real hairy spot Wednesday night, in the second half of Game 5 of their conference semifinal series against the Houston Rockets. The Rockets were surging even before Kevin Durant went down with a lower leg injury, erasing Golden State’s early lead and drawing to within a point at the moment of Durant’s ill-fated (but successful) jumper.
Beyond that injuries are painful and disrupt players’ careers, the loss of Durant at that exact moment seemed very much like it might be fatal for the Warriors, in large part because Steph Curry, the best Warriors player ever and a defining player of this period of NBA basketball, has been playing like a great big heap of dog crap through this series. Curry came into Game 5 shooting a woeful 26 percent from three against Houston, and just 39 percent overall. Those aren’t just lousy numbers for an all-time shooter, those are lousy numbers for, like, Austin Rivers. With Curry in this rut, Durant in the locker room, and Houston on the move, this seemed like it might be it for this particular Warriors season, if not this exact roster.
But the Warriors found a way, and a brief but timely and important return to form from Curry had a lot to do with it. Curry opened Game 5 4-of-14 from the floor and 1-of-8 from deep; after Durant’s injury, Curry knocked down a much more familiar-looking five of his nine shot attempts, and two of his three attempts from beyond the arc. He dropped in a pair of clutch free throws to keep the Rockets just out of reach in the closing minutes, and though it’s fair to say he still looks a long way off from his peak, he was there to do some by-God scoring when the situation called for it.
Steph didn’t do it alone, of course. Klay Thompson recovered from his own recent swoon, pouring in an efficient 27 points, equal to his production from the last two games combined. Draymond Green finished two points shy of a triple-double, and was flying around defensively like the all-court terror he can be when at his best. Andre Iguodala dropped in an absolutely crucial late free-throw to make it a five-point game with 27 seconds on the clock. And the Warriors got help from James Harden, who somehow managed to go almost nine minutes of the fourth quarter—from the 8:58 mark all the way until the clock read 18 seconds—without attempting a single field goal.
What was most striking about this game is just how jittery and uncertain Curry and Thompson continue to look, even down the stretch of what turned out to be a really good win. With about a minute left in the fourth quarter, Curry very nearly lost his dribble while being hounded by P.J. Tucker on the perimeter; then, after getting around Tucker, Curry short-armed and clanked an awkward floater, not at all the kind of smooth and artful stuff we’re used to seeing from him in these scenarios. The ball luckily ricocheted directly back into his hands, but rather than pull it out and burn clock, Curry hastily and sort of recklessly hot-potatoed the ball back toward the rim. Chris Paul was hit with a foul on the play, and maybe Curry anticipated the contact, but generally he looks loose with the ball and flustered by Houston’s intensity in a way that’s totally new in his time in the NBA.
Klay had his own play of this type, with 18 seconds on the clock and the Warriors up three. The Rockets would need to foul, period, in order to get the ball back with any hope of tying the game. Klay took the inbounds pass and pushed the ball into the front court, but then very foolishly handed it off to Iguodala, who is an awful free-throw shooter and is exactly the guy the Rockets would want to foul. Sensing his error, Klay circled back to the arc and called for the ball, but now he’d put himself along the sideline, where he was easily trapped by Harden and Paul. Here’s what happened:
That’s just a hell of a lot of luck to go a player’s way all at once. Klay stupidly and unnecessarily put the ball into the hands of a vulnerable teammate, then put himself in trouble and lost his balance. Instead of rifling the ball off the legs of a defender, which is one of the oldest tricks in the book, he just ... threw it to no one. It was pure dumb luck that teammate Kevon Looney tracked it down in the corner, and pure bad luck for the Rockets that nobody was available to deny Looney’s pass to Klay underneath. But even there Klay was hasty! With no shot clock and Clint Capela bearing down on him, the smarter and higher percentage play would’ve been to wait for the foul, and he’s extremely lucky his weak-sauce layup wasn’t pinned on the glass and taken the other way by the Rockets.
The result of all this mess was a 104–99 win that keeps the Warriors in the driver’s seat in the series. The Rockets would otherwise have cause to feel encouraged by so narrow a margin on the road in Oakland, except that they were outscored down the stretch by a Warriors team missing its only player who hasn’t been a head-case over the last several games. And the Warriors would have cause to feel encouraged, except they got very lucky to survive this one, and have no idea whether Durant will be available again in this series. An Achilles tendon injury has reportedly “been ruled out,” which qualifies as great news. But this series is very much a toss-up, and the Warriors are not likely to survive so much chaos a second time.