NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh

HOUSTON -- Steve Kerr benched his two-time MVP, Stephen Curry, in the biggest game of the Warriors’ three-peat quest, a Game 6 on the road against a Houston Rockets team starving for redemption.

Curry was not the least bit happy about Kerr’s decision and didn’t hide it during a timeout at the 7:12 mark in the first quarter after picking up his second foul.

Curry stormed into the coaches’ huddle and got in his coach’s face, pleading for him to reverse his decision to put backup Quinn Cook into the game.

“Come on, Coach,” Curry said. “It’s Game 6. I gotta be out there.”

Kerr looked him in the eye and didn’t hold back.

“Steph,” Kerr told him, as he relayed to NBCSports.com after the game. “You just fouled James Harden on a jump shot. You’re going to do it again. And you’re going to get your third foul, so you’re not going to play the rest of the quarter.”

It might have been hard to understand then, but this was all about respect -- for Curry and for his teammates. Since Kerr took over as head coach in 2014, the franchise’s motto became “Strength In Numbers” -- a rallying cry emphasizing the team above the individual. It’s a message that Kerr had come back to repeatedly after Durant got injured at the end of Game 5. Everyone on the roster had to stay ready.

But Kerr had seen the numbers, too, and kept thinking about this statistical fact: Since the start of the 2016-17 season, the Warriors were 30-4 in games in which Durant sat but Curry played. He reminded himself of those numbers in that timeout. As long as they kept Curry available for the second half, they’d have a chance. Thirty and four.

 

“How can I trust you,” Curry recalled Kerr telling him, “to not get your third foul, when you know how big this game is right now and you put yourself in this predicament?”

Curry stood down and reluctantly took his seat on the bench. He respected it.

“He keeps it real,” Curry said after the game. “Obviously, I didn’t like [his decision]. But we have a strong relationship where I’m not going to lose confidence in that moment. That’s built over time.”

Respect is earned in this league, not given. The Warriors earned it across the league by winning the 2015 NBA Finals with homegrown talent, defeating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers at the peak of his powers.

But that respect turned into something else over the last few years: Some parts jealousy, some parts bitterness, some parts contempt. In an April 2016 profile by New York Magazine, Warriors principal owner Joe Lacob declared, “We’re light years ahead of everybody.” When they lost the 2016 Finals, any sort of glee around the league was short-lived once Durant came to the rescue. They won back-to-back championships, and that was before DeMarcus Cousins hopped aboard. It’s not a stretch to say that the Warriors lost their initial identity and some respect along the way.

But when Curry sat in the first quarter Friday night, there was no Durant to step in. It was Quinn Cook, an undrafted free agent who was waived by four teams before he got to the Warriors in 2017.

Later in the quarter, when Andrew Bogut hit the bench, Cousins didn’t replace him. It was Kevon Looney, a player that every team passed on in the 2015 draft before the Warriors picked him 30th overall.

When 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala left the game at the 3:16 mark, another undrafted free agent stepped onto the floor in Alonzo McKinnie. Jordan Bell, a second-round pick in 2017, would later replace Draymond Green.

At the end of the first quarter, Klay Thompson wasn’t surrounded by four All-NBA players like he was at the start of the playoffs. Instead, it was two undrafted free agents, a second-rounder and the last pick of the first round—every one of them signed for the veteran’s minimum. This wasn’t the Warriors team that Cousins called the most hated team in all of sports. Suddenly, these were underdogs, heavy underdogs. Before the game, betting markets favored the Rockets over the Warriors by seven points.

To make matters worse, Curry had probably his worst half of playoff basketball. He had never gone scoreless for an entire half in a playoff game. But Kerr’s respect for Curry, his confidence in his point guard, never wavered.

 

“Every time something like this happens, we all look at each other and say, ‘He’s still going to get 30 and hit the biggest shot and win the game,’” Kerr said. “Like, that’s who he is. He makes some plays that you just can’t even believe … good and bad.”

Oh, yes, there was bad Steph in this game. The foul on Harden to pick up his second of the game was entirely avoidable, but Curry impeded Harden’s landing zone on a 3-point shot and got himself in foul trouble in a game he absolutely couldn’t get himself into foul trouble. Then, he carelessly bulldozed through P.J. Tucker in the lane and picked up his third foul with 5:44 left in the second quarter.

Curry hit the bench again, finishing the first half with 0-for-5 from the floor and more fouls (three) than combined points and assists (two).

“I was pretty, pretty terrible,” Curry said. “The only thing I did well was not turn the ball over in the 12 minutes I was out there.”

(He actually did. The charge.)

Instead of folding underneath the weight of Durant and Cousins’ injuries and early foul trouble that burdened Curry and Green, the Warriors’ unheralded supporting cast hung with the Rockets, earning a 57-57 tie at halftime. Kerr sat his stars longer than they wished and trusted the bench more than he had in weeks.

Once the second half started, the Warriors were unleashed. Curry made his first shot -- a 27-foot 3-pointer assisted by Green -- at the 9:49 mark of the third quarter. That started a Splash Brothers waterfall that seemed almost inevitable. Curry dazzled his way to 33 points after the break, while he and Thompson finished off the Rockets by scoring the Warriors’ final 19 points.

After the game, LeBron James tweeted “NEVER underestimate the heart of a champion.” Dwyane Wade, a three-time champion himself, typed out these words to Twitter: “Y’all better stop disrespecting @StephenCurry30 just because he’s a team first guy and is willing to sacrifice in moments doesn’t mean he’s not still a beast.”

Underestimated. Disrespected. Did Curry feel that way coming into Game 6 without Durant?

“I’ve heard a lot of noise in this series for sure; I’ll leave it at that,” Curry said. “Obviously I appreciate those words (from James and Wade). Champions recognize champions and what it takes to win games like tonight and do what we’ve been able to do these last five years. Hopefully more of that to come.”

There’s still plenty of work to do. The Warriors didn’t win the title on Friday night, but there was no shortage of celebration after the game. When the buzzer sounded, Thompson ran around in a frenzy hugging everyone in sight. Some team executives, some random bystanders.

 

Lacob sprinted toward Kerr, grabbed his shoulders and screamed “Brilliant! Brilliant!” in his ear and then hugged him. Curry found his father Dell and hugged him. Then, Steph found his mother Sonya and noticeably hugged her for a few beats longer. Sunday was Mother’s Day, and he’d now have the opportunity to spend it with her and his wife rather than playing in a Game 7 on the same day as his brother Seth, who will face the Denver Nuggets.

There was something else in the air on Friday night. Relief, sure. But it felt more like respect had been refilled, like the Warriors had regained something they lost. One rival general manager who watched the game described the Warriors’ performance over text as “so, so good. Fun to watch them rely on movement when Durant is out.”

There’s no loss of respect for Durant in the Warriors’ locker room. After the game, Thompson called Durant “one of the greatest players to ever play, the best scorer in the world.” He went on, “If we want this three-peat, we desperately need him back. He’s our best player. We dearly miss him. We’ll hold it down without him. It’s not the same without him.” Curry, later on SportsCenter, echoed that sentiment, calling Durant “the best player in the league” unprompted.

While the Warriors wait for Durant to rejoin their three-peat quest, the Rockets, and their stars, search for answers yet again. Harden, for the fourth time in five years, exits the playoffs at the hands of the Warriors despite a potential second straight regular-season MVP season. Chris Paul, who so desperately sought validation after last year’s ill-timed hamstring injury, remained healthy for the entire postseason and finished Friday with his best game of the postseason: 27 points, 11 rebounds and six assists.

He wanted this one badly. This is a guy who, before Game 6 last year at Oracle Arena, needed to leave the court because he was hyperventilating -- a revelation he made on a recent episode of The JJ Redick Podcast.

“I was close to throwing up or damn-near pass out,” Paul said. “I was so nervous and so anxious. And I never feel that when I play, but it was the simple fact that I had no control over what was about to happen.”

There were opportunities for Paul and the rest of the Rockets to take control of Friday’s game and turn the series. It’s hard to imagine them getting dealt a stronger set of cards. Curry sat for long stretches with foul trouble. So did Green. But Harden uncharacteristically missed five of his 12 free throws, the first time he missed that many at the line in a playoff game since 2013. Eric Gordon only took two 3-pointers and never got to the free-throw line.

 

Internally, there were some in the Rockets organization that felt that this was a better opportunity to take down the Warriors than last year, even though they were the No. 1 seed in 2018. This year’s Warriors team seemed disjointed after a first-round series with the L.A. Clippers and belabored with the cumulative fatigue that comes after four straight Finals runs. But still, the Rockets squandered that opportunity in Game 6.

Maybe Durant leaves the Warriors this summer and levels out the playing field out West a bit. But how can the Rockets feel any better about taking down the Warriors after losing to this Durant-less team in a must-win at home? Paul will be 35 years old this time next year, and Clint Capela didn’t take the step forward many expected this postseason. With a bloated payroll, it seems the Rockets have no choice but to run it back next season and hope they break through like the 2011 Dallas Mavericks.

Meanwhile, the Warriors’ swagger of old returned on Friday night. For the first time in a long time, it seemed respect was earned around the league again, a reminder of what this team is capable of -- with Durant and Cousins or without them. But to get respect from others, the Warriors first had to trust each other -- the coaching staff and players.

“It’s just a great vibe,” Curry said. “They bring the best out of us. That’s why we are who we are.”

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.