Every minute that Stephen Curry is on the floor for the Warriors is an expression of his value. It’s the threat of Curry’s shooting that allows Draymond Green to roll down an untended lane to make plays, and that enables Andre Iguodala to lead all playoff participants in dunks. Iguodala credited Curry’s draw in setting up Golden State for a dominant offensive rebounding performance in their 115-109 Game 2 win over Houston; a defense will lose balance if it extends too far out towards the perimeter, and Curry—even when he’s not shooting all that well—has the power to topple even the most carefully engineered scheme. Anything that can be done to rein in Curry comes at a significant cost. The Warriors have been living off it for years.
These days, however, Golden State is getting fewer of those minutes—and thus less of that impact—than expected. Curry just can’t stay out of foul trouble. It’s not a reach here and a bump there, but a pattern of reaches and bumps that’s eating into the playing time of one of the best basketball players in the world. “He just hasn't been focused,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr noted during his team’s first-round series against the Clippers. If that were true then, it would surely be now. In these first two games against the Rockets, Curry not only picked up five fouls in each game, but did so in a way that cost him playing time and forced the Warriors to rearrange their preferred rotation.
At this point, the only player still alive in these playoffs racking up more fouls per game than Curry is Portland’s Maurice Harkless, a rangy wing defender assigned to track high-end scorers and make high-wire rotations. Contact comes with the territory. Curry, on the other hand, is shielded not only by his matchups, but the intuitive reads of his teammates. When the Rockets attempt to drag Curry into switches against James Harden, the Warriors often eject Curry from the action by preemptively switching defenders like Green or Klay Thompson in Curry’s stead before a screen is even set. This is a smart way to limit Curry’s exposure, though it hasn’t yet kept him from fouling his way to the brink of disqualification.
"I can't be passive, but I can be smart," Curry said. "And I've talked about it a lot since, what, Game 2 of the Clipper series? I'm going to figure it out eventually."
This is a more pressing concern than the Warriors' 2-0 series lead might lead you to believe. Had Curry picked up his sixth foul in either of the first two games (and he came awfully close), the feel of the series could have changed dramatically. What if Curry weren’t around to hit a dagger three with 26 seconds left in Game 1? What if a careless swipe at the ball had kept him off the floor during the crucial, lead-protecting finish of Game 2? Or, in much less dramatic but no less critical fashion: What if Curry fouling his way out of a second or third quarter costs his team a game going forward?
From the opening of this series, the Warriors have treated the Rockets as a credible threat. Kerr chose to start Iguodala—and thus the Death Lineup—from the jump. Green and Kevin Durant have begun games defending at full bore. Role players who become matchup liabilities are quickly pulled, and in the case of Andrew Bogut, dropped from the rotation entirely. The way the Warriors have managed this series tells us that every detail matters. How much Curry fouls (and therefore plays) would certainly qualify. The first two games of this series swung on less.
Miss a few minutes at the wrong time and the Rockets could easily pop off six straight points, enough to close the gap in either game. Moreover, the timing of Curry’s unplanned rest can jumble other segments of the rotation. Since losing DeMarcus Cousins to injury, the Warriors have tried to start fourth quarters with Durant, Thompson, and a trio of reserves. Curry’s foul trouble has gotten in the way of that plan—forcing him out of the lineup earlier than expected and thus back into it earlier than Golden State would like.
In Game 2, for example, Curry assumed Durant’s spot to start the fourth. Replacing one MVP with another isn’t exactly self-sabotage, but any such change brings complications. Houston actually started the fourth quarter with defensive ace P.J. Tucker on the floor until they realized Durant wouldn’t be. Tucker subbed out as soon as he could, and got four minutes of rest (and reprieve from his own foul trouble) he otherwise might not have had. Curry’s fouling had given one of the most important Rockets cover.
Plus, the lineups that usually start the fourth tend to make less sense for setting up Curry than Durant. The best way to harness Curry’s shooting and relocation is to pair him with a bigger forward who can deliver the ball at the perfect time. This was the only time in Game 2 that none of Green, Durant, or Iguodala was on the floor, leaving Curry and the Warriors to rely on lesser mechanisms. Putting the ball in Curry’s hands might seem tempting under the circumstances, though less so when a trap forces Kevon Looney or Jonas Jerebko to make plays on the move. A few timely baskets from Shaun Livingston helped the Warriors get away with it. Next time, they might not be so lucky.
It ultimately comes down to this: Curry is the only core Warrior whose minutes haven’t ramped up in the postseason, even though Golden State is actually losing those minutes when he’s not on the floor. All of this is somewhat controllable, more so by Curry than Kerr, who had this to say about his star guard’s foul trouble: “He's such a fascinating player because the same thing that makes him not hesitate to shoot a fadeaway 30-footer maybe is the same thing that gets him in foul trouble. You know, he doesn't overthink much, and so he's just gotten into a habit lately of reaching, and instead of showing his hands and trusting the help behind him.”
That was more than a week ago. The only thing that has really changed since is the opponent, and with it, the penalty.