HOUSTON - Stephen Curry's name is often the first one mentioned where the Warriors are concerned, even on a team with three other All-Stars and a fellow former Kia MVP winner in Kevin Durant.
And there's good reason for it.
Curry is the player most teams fear because of the way he changes the game's dynamics with his shooting range that knows no bounds. But he's also the one player teams can attack on the defensive end, marking perhaps the only real soft spot for the reigning NBA champions.
Game 2 of the Western Conference finals provided a masterclass in how to exploit Curry's defensive struggles as the Rockets targeted him early, often and relentlessly in a 127-105 blowout at Toyota Center Wednesday to even the series at 1-1.
Curry, the two-time Kia MVP, knows what opposing scouting reports say about him. He's used to wearing a bullseye on defense and accepts the challenge of battling against his reputation.
When it became obvious that he was going to be the center of defensive attention for a Rockets team desperate to avoid their first back-to-back playoff losses, Curry knew exactly what was coming.
"Surprise, surprise," Curry said of the Rockets' concerted effort to go at him.
The strategy worked to perfection, sapping any chance of the Warriors duplicating their Game 1 effort that saw them withstand an early blitz before taking control in the second half and winning by 13 points.
Durant was surgical again, shredding the Rockets for a game-high 38 points. Curry, however, finished with 16 on 19 shots, including a 1-for-8 performance on 3-poiners. Durant and Curry were the only Warriors to reach double figures as the Rockets dismantled the fabled "Hamptons Five" lineup.
"We got outplayed the whole game," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "We're playing a team that won 65 games. They're damn good. We got it handed to us. You can look at it anyway you want and parcel it out into different shifts and rotations and all that stuff, but it didn't matter who we had out there tonight. We got beat."
The Warriors got knocked off balance early by the Rockets' ramped up energy and physicality and, outside of Durant, never fully answered that challenge on either end of the floor.
"I think that was the difference," Curry said. "We were trying to be too cute with our exchanges and our switches and all that stuff instead of just manning up and playing one-on-one defense. Whether they score or not, as hard as we're working on the defensive end, they're working as hard on the offensive end to get shots up.
"That was the difference between Game 1 and Game 2. They made a concerted effort to turn those one-on-one situations into a little bit more ball movement, and we were just a step slow, myself included."
Through two games in this series, Curry is the only principle who has not played up to his own standard. Wednesday was his sixth game back in the lineup after missing the final 10 regular-season games and first six of the playoffs while recovering from a Grade 2 MCL sprain. That injury came on the heels of a six-game absence from a right ankle sprain in early March.
Curry and Kerr dismissed the notion that there was any lingering injury issue involved with Curry's play. Kerr responded to a reporter's question with a joke that he'd attribute "13.7 percent" of Curry's subpar performance to the knee sprain.
"I mean, it obviously wasn't Steph's best night," Kerr said. "He struggled. Slow start for him. I thought in the second half he got a few things going. I'm not worried about Steph. He's the kind of competitor and player who will bounce back from a tough night. But it's just one of those nights.
"He's feeling good. I don't know what this was, maybe his sixth or seventh game back. So he's getting better, and I thought he played a lot better in Game 1 than anyone gave him credit for. But, again, it wasn't our night. Our defense wasn't connected. We weren't on the same page on a lot of plays where we got a little out of sorts. Yeah, there are a lot of ways you could look at it, but it doesn't matter - 127-105."
Curry insists he's not dealing with any physical discomfort that would cause him to struggle the way he has so far in this series.
"I'm feeling great," he said. "Tonight, I didn't find a rhythm early. I had some decent looks from 3 that could have changed the momentum of the game early in the first half. But for the most part it was just a frustrating night all the way around. They made some adjustments. They got other guys involved, and they made plays.
"That's kind of how a series like this is going to be. Game after game, it's going to be a chess match. Tonight we just didn't make enough plays to stop the momentum in this building, and that was the difference in the game. P.J. Tucker, Trevor Ariza, Eric Gordon, they stepped up tonight. So we've got to be ready for that kind of aggressiveness from them in Game 3, and keep doing what we're doing."
Actually, the Warriors need Curry to do something else.
They have to find a way to get him back in a groove. Maybe heading back to Oracle Arena for Games 3 and 4 will provide the spark he needs. Following Durant's lead might be a good place to start.
"He's been amazing," Curry said. "He's making plays. He's aggressive. I think we all need to feed off of that focus and that determination. I think our intentions were in the right place. Just the way that first quarter started, we really didn't deserve to be in the game down the stretch in the fourth quarter.
"Obviously, he made a lot of tough shots and great plays to keep us close. If he can continue to do what he does, I'll shoot the ball better and play better defense, other guys will get involved and we'll be in great shape. Again, no panic. No house-is-on-fire type of mentality in our locker room.
"We're in pretty good shape right now."
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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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