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Backed into must-win Game 4, here are three things Rockets must do to even series

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Three years ago, the Houston Rockets came back from 3-1 down in a playoff series to defeat a Los Angeles Clippers (and give that franchise a punch to the gut from which it has not recovered). It was one of the great Rockets’ moments of the last decade.

Houston is not going to be able to do that against these Golden State Warriors. Go down 3-1 after Game 4 Tuesday at Oracle and the series is all but over.

Which means after the Rockets’ blowout loss in Game 3 Sunday night, Houston finds itself in the same must-win spot it did after Game 1. And unlike Game 2, the Rockets will not get helped out by an arrogant Warriors team not playing at its peak — the Rockets are going to need a near perfect game to beat a full-force Warriors team on Tuesday.

Here are the three key areas the Rockets must improve to win Game 4:

1) Just shoot better — finish shots at the rim and hit some threes. It’s rather obvious and simplistic, but it’s the reality: Houston just has to shoot better in Game 4.

The Rockets took a full one-third of their shots at the rim in the restricted area in Game 3, but they struggled with those making just 13-of-27 (48.1 percent). The Rockets took 42 percent of their shot attempts from three but hit just 11-of-34, and they were 7-of-25 on above the break threes. That’s not good enough, the Rockets are going to need at least 15 made threes in a game to win.

“Those are double whammies,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said of the missed shots at the rim. “It’s like we missed layups first half especially and they go down and score. So in transition, you’ve got to keep them out of transition, you’ve got to make layups. We didn’t do that. When they did miss, we didn’t box out all the time, and then we turned it over 20 times. It’s a formula for losing, and for us to correct that, we can’t turn it over. Got to make layups for shots, and get back.”

To be fair, the Warriors contested shooters well all game, especially guys driving the basket, but still, the Rockets need to knock down more of their shots contested or not. It’s the most basic premise of basketball.

2) Houston has to play faster. D’Antoni said it above, the Rockets and their missed shots let the Warriors get out in transition and control the pace. It’s also a simple fact that the team that controls the pace — the team that gets transition opportunities and gets into its offense earlier in the shot clock — will win the games.

Golden State had 26 transition opportunities to 12 for the Rockets, according to the Synergy Sports stats breakdown.

Or, look at it this way (via Cleaning the Glass), in Game 3, Houston started just10.4 percent of their possessions in transition (and scored a dreadful 0.89 points per possession on those plays). For comparison, in their Game 2 win, the Rockets started 18.7 percent of their possessions in transition. On Sunday night in Game 3 Warriors started 19.8 percent of their plays in transition, nearly one in five trips down the court, and they scored 1.44 points per possession on those plays.

The Rockets need to make more shots and then, even when they miss, get back in transition and not let the Warriors get rolling early in the clock. Houston also needs to defend better and force more Warriors misses, which will allow them to run. It’s all tied together, the Warriors were making shots so the Rockets were taking the ball out of the basket and coming up against set defenses; the Rockets were missing shots that let the Warriors come up fast and forcing the Rockets to scramble on defense (Golden State tears apart teams in those situations). It’s a holistic thing, but the evidence it’s working is which team controls the pace, and the Rockets need to do that in Game 4.

3) Houston needs more out of Chris Paul. It’s easy to point to the Stephen Curry eruption in the third quarter as the time the Warriors ended the game, and there is truth to that. Golden State started the third on a 10-0 run (where Curry had five of those points) and the fire was lit, then Curry started hitting 30-foot threes and quickly the game was out of reach. Those Warriors runs are crushers.

However, to me the turning point in the game was when James Harden went to the bench for his usual rest with 2:46 left in the first quarter — the Warriors outscored the Rockets by nine before the quarter was up (part of an 11-0 run to end the quarter). By the time Harden returned with 9:16 left in the second quarter, the Rockets were down 10, a hole they never could get out of (they were down 11 at the half).

CP3 has to be better in that stretch. The Warriors threw bigger, switchable guards at him on defense — Shaun Livingston, Nick Young, and then Andre Iguodala — and Paul couldn’t get separation and make plays against them. Without Harden, the Rockets offense stalled out, and doing that led to the Warriors getting to push the pace and get their transition buckets. Paul looked slowed at points, reaching on defense and not as explosive as we’ve seen.

This isn’t the Utah Jazz. Harden was off in Game 5 against Utah, but Paul picked up the slack (his 41-point, 10 assist game) and Houston got the win. Against Golden State, both Paul and Harden must have good games for Houston to have a chance. The Warriors are too good, too deep, there is no margin for error anymore.

The Rockets have an elite game in them — we saw the blueprint of what they have to do in Game 2. Houston can do that again. The only question is can they do it in the face of Golden State’s pressure, because the sharks on the Warriors smell blood in the water and will be coming hard in Game 4.

Shaun Livingston crossed James Harden so hard it made Greg Anthony mispronounce “meme” (VIDEO)

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The Golden State Warriors embarrassed the Houston Rockets on Sunday night. Stephen Curry scored 35 points, didn’t miss a shot in the third quarter, and helped the Warriors win Game 3 and take a 2-1 series lead by a margin of 41 points.

Not too shabby.

But it wasn’t just Curry who turned the Rockets into shrinking violets. Shaun Livingston, who added 11 points off the bench while shooting 4-of-4, took his turn putting Houston to task.

During one play, Livingston crossed up James Harden on his way to a wide-open dunk. Livingston’s crafty dribble moves also shook commentator Greg Anthony’s brain up a little bit, so much so that Anthony forgot how to say the word “meme”.

Via Twitter:

Even during a 41-point decimation the NBA is still the funniest league on the planet.

Stephen Curry goes berserk, Warriors beat Rockets by 41 in Game 3

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Stephen Curry had yet another big third quarter. Who could have seen that coming?

On the heels of the Houston Rockets’ 22-point win in Game 2, the Golden State Warriors decided to turn up the intensity as they returned home to Oakland on Sunday. The Warriors leapt out of the gate, scoring 31 points in the first quarter and playing monumental defense at the rim. Houston suffered from blown attempts in the paint for the entire first half, but it was their 3-point defense that stabilized their offense. The Rockets shot just 27 percent from beyond the arc in the first two quarters.

Then, perhaps expectedly, came the third quarter. The realm of 2-time NBA MVP Curry.

Golden State’s golden point guard failed to miss a single field goal in the quarter, helping the Warriors rally to start the half as well as fend off a Houston charge midway through the period. Curry completely took over with around six minutes left, dropping five of the Warriors’ next six made baskets.

It was enchanting, and everything we’ve come to expect from Curry when he’s at his best. After a made bucket, there was a shimmy. After a follow-up layup, a defiant stance on the baseline as he yelled to the crowd about Oracle Arena being his house.

Indeed, it was.

Curry and the Warriors did not let off the gas in the fourth quarter, finally burying the Rockets that both sides called a truce with 5:11 left, subbing out their big stars.

Houston was led by James Harden, who scored 20 points with nine assists and five rebounds, although he turned the ball over four times. Chris Paul had 13 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists. Eric Gordon helped with 11 points off the bench. The Rockets turned the ball over 20 times, allowing 28 points off turnovers to the Warriors.

For Golden State it was Curry’s 35 points and six rebounds as the big story. Kevin Durant added 25 points, six rebounds, and six assists. The Warriors shot 41 percent from 3-point range as every starter scored in double-digits. Golden State was also able to limit its turnovers to just eight.

Game 3 exemplified the stratification between the two teams. Houston was arguably the best team of the regular season, with the caveat being that Curry was out for huge swaths of time due to injury. With Curry back on the floor and playing at full tilt, Golden State again looks unbeatable.

Steve Kerr was able to counter the Game 2 strategy from Mike D’Antoni, who ran everything during Houston’s win directly at Curry on defense to tire out the recently-returned star. Kerr’s tweaks resulted in a complete eruption from Curry, one Houston was powerless to stop. Coupled with the continuous pounding from Durant and the incessant, extra pass 3-pointers, the Rockets didn’t have a counterstrike option.

Game 4 is in Oakland on Tuesday at 6:00 PM PST. We’ll see if D’Antoni can work his magic and come up with another new strategy to try and slow the Warriors.

PBT Extra: Can Rockets take Game 2 energy, execution on the road?

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Houston found its blueprint to beating Golden State in Game 2: Strong defensive pressure on the ball, quick switches and communication on defense, getting out in transition when possible, and starting sets earlier in the shot clock and attacking downhill with James Harden and Chris Paul.

Now can they do that on the road? Against a more focused and sharper Warriors’ team?

That will be the question in the next two games of the Western Conference Finals, and it’s what I discuss in this latest PBT Extra.

Stephen Curry, Warriors unconcerned about MVP’s shooting

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Stephen Curry has absolutely no concerns about his 3-point touch, so he’s counting on the first one he takes going in.

“I have confidence in myself and my teammates have confidence in me to do what I need to do,” the two-time MVP said Friday. “Never worry about it because I know how hard I work at it. It’s not a false sense of confidence. I know how hard I work at what I do.”

His teammates and coach also say enough with the panic about Curry already. Kevin Durant doesn’t even want to hear about any shooting struggles: he considers Curry the best shooter on the planet, and so be it if he shows he’s human, too, once in a while. This is after all the same sweet shooter who broke his own NBA record for 3s in a single season by hitting 402 in 2015-16.

“When Steph misses a shot everybody gets up in arms about it. That’s how great he is. So many people expect him to make every single shot. Sometimes it doesn’t happen,” Durant said. “I knew the next couple days was going to be about Steph struggling to shoot the ball but that’s the last thing I worry about with Steph. I’ve just got so much confidence in him on the offensive side of the basketball.”

Still, Curry has just one 3-pointer in each of the first two games of the Warriors’ Western Conference finals series with the Rockets as the best-of-seven showdown shifts to Oracle Arena for Game 3 on Sunday night notched at 1 game apiece.

He is shooting 15 for 34 overall from the floor, missing 11 of his 13 3-point tries.

“I’ve gone 0 for 11 before shooting 3s, 1 for 8. Whatever the case is, you’re always shooting that next shot with the optimism and the confidence that it’s going in,” Curry said. “So you can work on stuff in between practices and games and get your rhythm, just seeing the ball go in, work on your mechanics, but never lose confidence in myself ever. And that’ll never change.”

During his extensive shooting work Friday, Curry yelled out “Ahhh!” in frustration a few times. He hollered “Oh my goodness!” and “Crazier things have happened!”

Durant just shook his head and noted, “If you worry about missed 3s with Steph Curry …” then carried on about the Houston defense and how impressed he is that Curry has improvised and taken opportunities to drive to the rim when the Rockets switch out on him in an effort to protect the 3-point line.

Curry referred to his personal shooting coach, Bruce Fraser, as “sensei,” or teacher. They talk in depth about what kind of workout Curry needs on any given day to feel right with his shot .

Curry understands the scrutiny. Golden State took a 127-105 beating from Chris Paul, James Harden and the Rockets on Wednesday night in Houston.

“It’s something to talk about and we obviously lost so you can try to pinpoint stuff or reasons,” Curry said. “And obviously I didn’t have to talk to any of y’all to wake up and know I didn’t play well in Game 2. That doesn’t change my outlook on the series or what I need to do. If I don’t shoot the ball well in Game 3 it won’t change a thing about the way I approach the next one. You come to the game with the right intentions, the right approach and more times than not it will work out in your favor.”

Curry feels great physically. He missed nearly six weeks with a sprained left knee he injured March 23 before he came back for Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals against New Orleans. Coach Steve Kerr believes it’s far tougher to return from an injury during the pressure-packed playoffs, with no time to ease in with games that don’t matter or have near the same magnitude.

“I think Steph’s healthy, he’s moving fine,” Kerr said. “But this is more rhythm than anything. You come back from six weeks in the regular season, chances are you’re going to have a game where nobody’s focused and the other team’s playing their fourth in five nights and the defense isn’t that tough and you make a bunch of 3s and you just feel good.”

The playoffs, Kerr said, are like facing the best pitcher in the World Series night after night.

Curry is up for the challenge.

“Just waking up every day with optimism and confidence in myself and where I’m at. That’s all I can really kind of speak on,” Curry said. “There isn’t time to kind of coast or ease your way into it, especially with the intensity and pressure and all that stuff, so you’ve got to be ready.”