HOUSTON -- Stephen Curry wanted to play in what became a thrilling 97-96 Golden State Warriors loss to the Houston Rockets on Thursday. Coach Steve Kerr made that clear, minutes after telling reporters that his star was out.
"His thought was that he would be OK," Kerr said. "We just felt a lot more comfortable putting him through a 3-on-3 tomorrow, probably a 5-on-5 on Saturday and really seeing if he's OK or not."
And with that, the decision was out of Curry's hands, even before a pregame warm-up could test his foot. Curry might be the most powerful force in basketball, worth potentially $14 billion to his shoe brand (to say nothing of the Warriors), but he is powerless to fight the lineup sheet. He was declared inactive, and that was that.
A related rule prevented the most powerful force in basketball from joining his teammates on Golden State’s bench. An inactive player must dress according to code. Curry, ever the optimist, assumed he wouldn’t need a suit in Houston. He was overruled.
Even after tough losses, Curry tends to exude cheer. Not this time. After this one, Curry pulled his warm-up hoodie over his face, placed his head in his hands and froze in the pose of a man battling a headache -- or worse. He did this for minutes. Despite not seeing the court, he was one of the last players to finally change out of his gear.
In the haze of defeat, Golden State’s All-Stars comprised a triangle of frustration: Curry in the center of the locker room, Klay Thompson on the left and Draymond Green in the right corner. Thompson and Green had atypically bad games. Thompson missed all seven of his 3-pointers, including an ambitious go-ahead 30-footer with 26 seconds remaining. Green ceded seven turnovers and didn’t play with his usual verve.
The two active All-Stars dealt with defeat in their own ways. Thompson was sullen, staring straight ahead for minutes before finally sinking into his phone. Green held court in his corner, carrying on with standard volubility.
When it goes wrong for Green , he’ll sometimes lean into the situation, embracing accountability. "I cost us this game. I was horrible," he said, amid a few cutting self assessments. That was an exaggeration, but also refreshing. Green is confident enough to rip himself without fear of losing face. He can cop to being horrible one game because he knows the bad nights are anomalous.
Thompson was similarly tough on himself once he emerged from his depressive fugue.
"I’ll watch the tape on my shots and see what I can do better, especially the last two that I had," he said. "The last one felt good, and the other shot was wide open; that’s basketball, and there’s no time to sulk. It obviously hurts real bad. It’s not really a quick turnaround, but I have a chance to redeem myself on Sunday."
This was a bizarre night when there were no stars, when Ian Clark played to a standard his highly lauded teammates couldn’t equal. It was a game in which Marreese Speights scored at a Curry rate, in Curry’s absence. It was an evening in which Houston’s bench looked defeated upon seeing James Harden win the game.
From this strange night, we finally have a series, albeit one where Curry’s participation remains an open question. If it was up to him, he would have played by now. Although his play often decides games, he cannot, at the moment, decide to play in them. Whatever the issue with his ankle, it’s lingering. And the more it lingers, the more likely the Rockets are to linger as well.
It’s just one loss, but it’s a particularly frustrating one for this reason: The Warriors must now grapple with a new kind of risk. If Harden had missed his last shot, Golden State would have the series won in all but technicality. A shank would have ended this. Instead that swish converted Curry’s absence from background concern to pressing problem. The playoffs finally arrived in Golden State. When is the MVP arriving?
Will Curry play in Game 4? Right now, even he doesn’t know, because he doesn’t choose. For one man, that might be harder to absorb than the loss itself -- though the loss surely doesn’t help. For his All-Star teammates, it’s a question they must ignore while seeking redemption for themselves.